When the rocket scientist has to work over the weekend at a spacecraft vendor about an hour away, we go along for the fun! A hotel with a swimming pool and free breakfast helps seal the deal.
We didn’t get to go along to see the satellite undergoing testing, but it happened to be down the road from an acclaimed science museum for kids: the Discovery Cube. When I looked at the featured exhibits listed on the website, I knew what we had to see: Mission Control. It’s an interactive replica of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Space Flight Operations Facility aimed at teaching kids about the science and hard work behind space exploration. Perfect!
We made a beeline for Mission Control as soon as we had our tickets, after a few loops looking for the elevator to get baby brother’s stroller up to 2nd floor. We were met by a life-size replica of Mars Curiosity. Having seen the test mobility double up close in the Mars yard at JPL, this barebones model was a little less exciting, but definitely recognizable. As we entered the control room, Eddie immediately identified the familiar large screen featuring NASA’s array of giant radio antennas positioned deliberately around the globe to allow for constant communication with spacecraft as the earth rotates.
Three banks of small desks outfitted with touch screens filled the room with child size stools at each spot. Eddie claimed one facing a large projected screen of the surface of Mars.
“Want to drive the rover?” I asked. An obvious question, it didn’t even merit an answer. He touched the screen to begin the “mission”.
Here’s where I was a little disappointed. Most of the prompts on the screen involved choosing what color to paint the different parts of Curiosity. Once “launched” (as in, 3-2-1 blastoff!), the rover immediately rolled out across the projected screen and did the task assigned to it (in our case, Eddie chose to laser blast some rock). No mention of the many months it takes to fly a spacecraft all the way to Mars, no mention of the elaborate and over-the-top crazy process of landing it on the surface using supersonic parachutes, rockets, and the sky crane maneuver (check it out). A little too oversimplified in my opinion.
From there we moved on to the other two stations and repeated basically the same process for satellites and space station components (choose your color, launch and watch it fly across the large screen).
The next exhibit took us outside to see how rocket engines work, but Eddie was too afraid to get anywhere near the thing no matter how much I promised it wouldn’t blastoff with him under it.
That was definitely the highlight of the Discovery Cube for us rocket babies, but there were quite a few other neat interactive exhibits about recycling, the environment, the science of hockey, even a display of elaborate gingerbread houses being Christmastime.
Eddie also immensely enjoyed a special activity going on that day: the gingerbread derby. Handed a bag of cookies, marshmallows, and a few straws for the axels, we fashioned a little car and zoomed it down a ramp before he completely devoured it (except the straws of course).
I enjoyed their poster outlining the engineering process we were to follow as we built and tested our gingerbread vehicle. My favorite was step three, Imagine. Imagination is really the reason there are rovers on Mars anyway, and I appreciate a good educational museum which aims to teach my kid the ways imagination will serve them well as they discover the world, and beyond!