For kids who want to be astronauts — or adults who still dream about it — the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Va., is the place to explore and stoke their “space fever.”
VASC is a museum of a different sort. Serving as the official visitors center for NASA’s Langley Research Center, the birthplace of America’s space program, it offers more than 150 exhibits featuring interactive aviation displays spanning 100 years of flight, more than 30 historic aircraft, a hands-on space exploration gallery, unique space flight artifacts, and an IMAX theater. (casc.org)
Even from the outside and a block away, VASC’s arching glass building inspires the imagination. Inside, it is packed to the rafters with biplanes, shark-mouthed jet fighters, actual spacesuits, and space capsules. But, more than just static displays, the center offers a variety of space age experiences.
“Be the Astronaut,” one of VASC’s premier exhibit experiences, “… teaches Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)-based content via a fusion of physical exhibitry and state-of-the-art video game technology.” The exhibit enables developing young astronauts to “try on” an astronaut’s life. Working directly with NASA’s subject matter experts, and focused on free-choice learning, VASC designed the exhibit to offer a different experience each visit.
To try the concepts, challenges, and excitement of spaceflight, visitors use touch-screen stations, artifacts, and interactive simulator pods built to look like space capsules. “Virtual content experts” explain how to operate the various vehicles, and simulators give a sense of what it is like to perform many of the feats.
“Different people of different ages are able to enjoy the same experience,” said the center’s Danielle Price.
Simulating the space environment
Part of the exhibit simulates a space environment. Scientifically verified by experts at NASA for accuracy and feasibility, the technology-driven exhibit fosters critical thinking. Participants need to think like astronauts, integrating many ideas. They must make decisions based on information at hand. In the mockup, kids can follow some of the routines, take some of the challenges, and even use some of the specialized gear found in a space habitat.
The “Space Quest” exhibit also makes good use of interactive components to engage visitors in a celebration of the spirit of exploration that has marked NASA Langley Research Center’s role in the past, present, and future of space discoveries. Managed by Langley, the Viking Project investigated Mars with the Viking lander; the Mars Exploration Rover’s two mobile robots were sent on a later mission. Simulators enable visitors to travel to Mars aboard a futuristic transport ship, attempt a landing on the moon, and train for a lunar mission.
Just as the first moon walk was “one small step,” every space exploration is a compendium of many “small steps,” each critical to the overall mission success. The Orion PA1 Flight Test Vehicle Pad Abort 1, now housed at the center, is one of the critical steps on the course for Mars. Built at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, this capsule successful tested Orion’s launch abort system, which provides escape capability in an emergency during launch or initial ascent.
In striking contrast to VASC’s sleek glass exterior, a beautifully restored 1920’s carousel fills the park across the street with music and childhood memories. After spending hours probing the air and outer space, a few twirls on the venerable merry-go-round can bring you comfortably back to Earth.
Hampton Tourism: visithampton.com
Check out an Orion space capsule at the Virginia Air and Space Center