I’ve been thinking for a long while that I should write reviews of different space centres and museums, and my visit to Cite de l’espace in Toulouse has finally motivated me to get on and do so.
I’ll be honest, I knew that they had a full scale model of an Ariane 5 rocket and I’d heard there was also an exact replica of parts of the Russian Mir space station that had been used for ground testing, but other than that, I wasn’t really expecting much. How wrong I was. This place is an absolutely fantastic space centre, full of beautifully designed displays, well-thought out informational signs and graphics and lots and lots of hands-on exhibits.
When I was younger and I went to the Science Museum in London I used to love the exhibits where you got to press a button and watch a model come to life and the Launch Pad area was always great fun. Cite de l’espace has a slightly less frenetic feel to it than the Science Museum’s Launch Pad area, but each gallery has some very clever interactive elements.
The first stop on our tour was the Mars exploration area complete with full size models of each of the Mars rovers. These were displayed in order of their launch, which also happens to reflect their increasing size and complexity. Seeing them all side by side like that really put them in perspective and by the time I reached Curiosity I couldn’t help feel that it is something of a monster really. It’s so huge! There were nice touches like models of Sojourner weighted to reflect the change in weight on Earth and on Mars. Even knowing that there would be a big difference, picking up the version weighted to show how it heavy it would feel on Mars, still surprised me. It’s a really effective way to learn.
I’ve always said the best way learn is by doing, and it’s so great to find a space park (they don’t like to think of themselves as a museum) that has realised this and obviously put such a lot of thought into how to do this.
We were lucky enough to be greeted by Florence Seroussi who works in the press office there. She gave us a fantastic tour of the place and was kind enough to spend a moment telling me about the way they designed it to ensure that people really got the most out of the exhibits.
Cite de l’espace has even designed a prototype “AstroJump” which allows you to experience something of what it might feel like to walk on the Moon or Mars. They weigh you, strap you into a sort of baby seat on a wheeled trolley, and then set the counterbalance to make it feel like you’re on a different planet. Then you can bounce your way along a little walk way, and grin. It really is so much fun, and it’s such a great idea. I’d happily recommend it to every science museum on the planet!
The walkway up towards the towering Ariane 5 takes you on a journey of perspective with photographs mounted on glass panes. They start at a normal magnification, then zoom out, further and further to show first streets, then countries, continents, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, and then other galaxies and the tangled mesh of space. It’s pretty effective as you see within a few steps how small you are in comparison to the rest of the universe. It’s a novel idea, and they’ve designed it beautifully. I really can’t fault them.
Just being there excited me. In part, because of the subject matter, but mainly because it was so clear that they really cared what they were doing and have made a real effort to ensure that everything there adds value. Beside the Ariane 5 was a school group launching water rockets – rockets by a rocket!
They all sounded like they were having fun, so much so they probably didn’t even realise how much they were learning. That in itself excites me.
Then treat of all treats, she let us sit inside a Soyuz capsule. Unlike the comparatively spacious airline style seats of the shuttle, the Soyuz capsule is really rather tiny. Astronauts lie in specially moulded bath-tub-esque seats, in a semi-feotal position awaiting their blast of into space. I’ve seen a Soyuz before, and been baffled as to how tall Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli ever managed to fit inside it, but this was my first change at having a go myself. Of course I was unimpeded by a bulky spacesuit, so I felt quite fine and ready to head for the stars. The only way I could have grinned any wider was if they announced we were about to launch!
What a wonderous experience. I’ve sent a photo to cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov who’s currently in space. Just so that he knows I’m ready, will and just the right size to join him on a Soyuz spaceflight some day.
Cite de l’espace also has a section on weather, with the chance for visitors to control the weather, see how measurements are taken, read a television bulletin, create a vortex and more. One of the most innovative elements in this gallery is the lift into space. Not quite the space elevator that people have suggested for space travel, but a display in which you can enter the lift, chose which floor you’d like to explore (troposphere, mesophere, stratosphere etc) and the video screens make you feel like you’re travelling up through them, giving you information along the way. It’s remarkably effective, and of course I chose to go all the way up!
There’s a 3D cinema, an astronaut training room for schoolchildren (and those small enough to climb through various tunnels to explore other planets), and they’ve even created a space-themed playpark for younger children to climb around model spacecraft. The whole place is wonderfully thought through, imaginatively designed, and full of people just waiting to tell you about space. There are buttons to press, things to touch and feel, and even the chance to go for a spin in a gyroscope. Something I persuaded (ok, maybe insisted!) the group give it try. I couldn’t help but giggle, whereas poor Nick Howes was a little more vocal. Tee hee.
Cite de l’espace surpassed all expectations, made me grin, and is up there with the very best space places to visit. Congratulations to the whole team there for creating a consistently engaging experience, and showing just how fun space education can be.