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Virtual Space Adventures

Educational Day Trips for Families

When school’s out for the holidays remember “one giant leap for mankind”– the lunar landing of 1969 and take your family on a virtual space flight adventure that’s closer to home than you imagine. Here in Virginia, you can come face-to-face with the technology that led American astronauts to their first hike on the surface of the moon.

Less than two hours east of Richmond, at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, you can see the actual spacecraft – the Lunar Excursion Model Simulator (LEMS) – used to train the famous 1969 NASA astronauts. Or climb aboard a twenty-first century version of a lunar simulator where space traveler wannabes can man the controls of the landing gear.

The Virginia Air and Space Center, which also serves as the visitor center for the NASA Langley Research Center, is a hospitable place that offers a personal experience. Its size is very manageable for youngsters and its warm, friendly volunteer docents and staff members are eager to share their passion for flight. Like other air and space institutions in Virginia, the volunteer docents may be retired pilots, aeronautics engineers or physicists.

When the American astronauts landed on the surface of the moon, they had trained intensively with simulators that helped them experience how their spacecraft would work in flight and ultimately, in landing.

The LEMS was built in Hampton at the NASA Langley Research Center and was used by Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and 22 other astronauts to help them learn about the challenges their spacecraft would experience when approaching the surface of the moon.

In Spacequest, your family can join a guest crew on a trip to Mars Where a simulator takes you on a journey to the red planet. When you land, the doors open and you and your crew begin to explore the planet surface in a virtual experience.

The actual Viking Project Orbiter, an amazing piece of space technology which mapped the surface of Mars, hovers overhead as your crew begins its quest for Martian knowledge. The Viking Project was managed by the NASA Langley Research Center and the Orbiter, together with the Viking Lander, collected research and transmitted it to Earth. The sum of its work is still considered one of the most successful space missions ever conducted.

Today, Mars explorers use controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to drive robotic rovers through the sandstorms of the planet that scientists now believe could have sustained some life form. At the Virginia Air and Space Center, you can maneuver a simulated obstacle course using rovers after you arrive on the virtual dusty surface of Mars.

When you’ve flown with the crew of these spacecraft, be sure to watch the latest satellite transmitted news about NASA’s current discoveries. And, on your way through the exhibits don’t forget to see the real moon rock collected during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Change direction a bit and head north to Washington, D.C., to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and its new Northern Virginia wing, the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport.

Together, these facilities tell the complete story of air and space travel. You’ll discover incredible artifacts and exhibits, including the diminutive Apollo 11 Space Module and the Wright Brothers glider at the museum on the National Mall. In this fortieth anniversary year of the race to space, the Smithsonian is seeking information about personal experiences from museum-goers about the Apollo 11 mission artifacts on display.

If you’re the tiniest bit interested in America’s achievements in extraterrestrial travel, you should make a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space museums a priority. While much of the museums’ collection is devoted to telling the story of the lunar landing, the entire aerospace collection is a must–see for families.

Take, for example, the Blackbird SR-71, the world’s fastest plane. While it’s not spaceflight, the Blackbird comes close to it. The actual plane that set the flight record for speed in 1990 from Los Angeles to Washington Dulles (1 hr, 4 min, 20 sec; averaging 2,124 mph) is on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar- Hazy Center.

In Richmond, the Virginia Aviation Museum displays a retired Blackbird plane at its entrance near the Richmond International Airport. The Richmond museum often holds special forums on significant aeronautic events, including sharing now declassified stories about the once secret Blackbird, which is still the fastest, highest flying manned production plane in the world.

As you make plans for the upcoming holidays, take one small step with your family and visit our region’s great educational centers to honor and respect the achievements in U.S. aerospace history.

This Thanksgiving, remember Buzz Aldrin’s historic words uttered from the moon’s surface 40 years ago: “I’d like to ask every person listening in… to contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

Sue Bland lives in Hanover with her husband and two kids. She writes about travel in the mid-Atlantic.
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