The La Habra Children's Museum, in the midst of an exhibit on the wonders of space exploration, faces a profound new challenge: how to explain Tuesday's tragic space shuttle disaster to visiting youngsters.
The airborne explosion, which killed the crew of seven, including a schoolteacher, dramatized the inherent dangers of space exploration. It also made those risks a significant element of the museum's exhibit, said Tracy Robinson, the show's coordinator.
"Like everyone else, there was no way we were prepared for something as terrible as this," Robinson said. "We are now trying to make kids understand what happened. We are also trying to keep the exhibit's optimistic focus."
The show, designed primarily for children in preschool through sixth grade, will not change greatly, according to Robinson. The daily tours through the displays and "hands-on" exhibits will continue but with a different approach for older children.
Robinson said docents will try to make clear to those in third grade and above just what occurred during Tuesday's fiery accident. Along with a "calm" discussion of space travel hazards, docents will note the bravery and commitment of astronauts, she said.
The explosion will not be discussed during tours for the children in second grade and below, unless the youngsters, their parents or teachers request it, Robinson said.
"The smaller children are mainly there for the fantasy and the very basics of space travel, and the tragedy may not have affected them," she explained. "But we will play it all by ear. We also understand the need to present facts and truth with imagination. A lot will depend on the questions we get."
The point of the show, which runs through March 8, is to familiarize children with the universe's compelling mysteries.
Visiting youngsters are first given the opportunity to dress up in their choice of outfits, ranging from those resembling real space suits to the fantasy costumes of antennaed Martians. There also are uniforms for nurses, space technicians and mission control workers.
Then it's into the model spaceship complete with a two-seat cockpit, flashing computer screen and a beguiling array of buttons. After landing, there's a Styrofoam lunar landscape for a simulated moon stroll.
There also are several exhibits documenting science's reach into the skies. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and aerospace manufacturers Rockwell International Corp. and Northrop Corp. a donated some of the objects on display and acted as advisers for the exhibit. A few private collectors of space hardware and memorabilia also contributed.
The museum's directors chose the theme because most children show an interest in the universe's workings at an early age, and several Orange County elementary schoolteachers had asked for the exhibit as a learning tool, Robinson said.
She noted that the exhibit also has a vocational undercurrent. Along with the costumes and uniforms come descriptions of what the grown-ups who wear the real thing do on the job. Those descriptions cover not only the role of astronauts, but also the less risky--but essential--responsibilities of such space program personnel as rocket mechanics and dietitians.
"We want to give them the idea that there are a bunch of things they could do if they decided to get involved when they're big," Robinson said.
The nonprofit museum, which is supported through donations and a small admission fee ($1 for children, $1.50 for adults), created all the hands-on exhibits from simple and relatively inexpensive materials, and the organizers caution children and their parents not to expect a technological playland in the Disneyland mold.
The exhibits are marked more by homespun inventiveness than sophisticated realism. The moon-walking boots, for instance, are mundane snow shoes bought at a local store. The spacesuit helmets are visored motorcycle helmets with NASA stenciled on.
The model space capsule, easily the most popular exhibit, took Michael Rohan, a museum assistant, a week to design and three days to build. After an authentic look, the most important consideration was durability, he said.
"I had to repair the roof the other day," Rohan said with a sigh. "But that's how kids get. I'm just glad they seem to like it."
The museum, at 301 S. Euclid St. in La Habra, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.