Ask any kid old enough to talk: The more far out the attraction, the better.
That goes for movies, theme park rides, clothes and just about anything even remotely educational. But sometimes it's not as hard as parents think to encourage a child's interest in something worthwhile.
Take space. "Most kids are impressed with ghosts, dinosaurs and astronauts. There's something about being on the edge that gets children excited about space," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Spence Armstrong, NASA's associate administrator for education. Armstrong has been in enough classrooms to be convinced space is one subject that's never a tough sell to children.
"We use space as the hook," said Laurie Murphy, a former science teacher who oversees Space Center Houston's school programs. "If we get them excited about space, we can get them excited about science and math."
This summer and fall is a good time to encourage such interests. July 20 is the 26th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon. Two shuttle missions are scheduled for July with others coming up in the fall. And the movie "Apollo 13," based on the book "Lost Moon," by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, opens June 30. It is the true story of a moon mission that almost didn't make it back to Earth. For older kids and parents, the book is a good read.
The story may make the family want to hop in the car and head to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, just north of Cocoa Beach and an easy 45-mile drive east of Orlando. There's much that will intrigue children, including rockets, spacecraft, space suits and a space-themed playground. Those who would like to see a launch this summer should call Spaceport USA, the visitor center at Kennedy Space Center, at (407) 452-2121. Spaceport USA sells about 1,500 tickets ($7 for adults; $4 for children 3-11) for bus rides to viewing sites, from which visitors can see launches. Reservations are taken about a week before the launch. A limited number of free launch-viewing car passes are available from NASA by writing: NASA Visitor Services, Mail Code PA-Pass, Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899.
Wherever the family is going, kids ages 5-12 can get out their Legos, rev up their imaginations and design and construct their vision of future space stations, shuttles, satellites or robots. Everyone who enters the "Space Challenge" will receive a certificate of achievement signed by NASA astronauts. The grand prize winner and his or her family will be invited to attend a shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center and be flown to Space Center Houston to talk to a shuttle crew in orbit. Astronauts will judge the entries. Entry forms will be available July 21 at toy stores across the country. The first 1,000 entrants will receive the video, "The Space Shuttle," a Discovery Channel documentary on space travel.
Hunting the sky for constellations from outside a tent on a camping trip is fun. So is an exploration of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where visitors can try landing a space shuttle on a computer simulator, try on a space helmet and see the Mission Control Center. (Call 800-972-0369).
Some children will be heading to U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., or Titusville, Fla., for five days of training in simulated shuttle missions. There are programs designed for parents and kids to do together and others especially for teachers. (Call 800-637-7223 for more information.)
There are also displays for small children, including the "Flight Time Barbie" display at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The display tracks the history of the Barbie doll's participation in flight as she moves from stewardess in a 1961 costume to an astronaut in 1994. (Call the National Air and Space Museum at 202-357-2700.) Museum officials said they hope the exhibit will make young visitors, especially girls, more aware of the many space careers opening up.
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