Leicester, UK

5 Things I Learned at the National Space Centre, Leicester

July 20th 1969 marked a monumental event in human history. American astronaut Neil Armstrong was watched by an audience of millions as he made his way out of the Apollo 11 space craft and became the first man to set foot on the Moon. This one small step for man and giant leap for mankind celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer and to celebrate, the National Space Centre, Leicester has launched a brand new planetarium show to honour the team responsible for this immense milestone in our history. CAPCOM GO! The Apollo Story, highlights the achievements of not just Apollo 11 but all of the Apollo lunar missions, telling the story of the effort, talent, and commitment that put the first humans on the Moon. I was lucky enough to be invited along to experience the planetarium show for myself, as well as exploring the rest of the National Space Centre's exhibits.

As someone with very little in the way of a scientific background, a visit to the National Space Centre was a huge learning experience for me. I'm usually much more comfortable in an art or archaeology museum but my eyes were really opened to the incredible feats of space science during my time at the Space Centre. The 25 minute show in the UK's largest planetarium was a real highlight, but I discovered so much more besides. To tempt you to pay a visit of your very own, here are the five of the most fascinating facts that I learned during my Space Centre trip:

Abbey, wearing a NASA t-shirt and dungarees, stands in front of a USSR space craft

1) The first dog to orbit the earth was named Laika

Sadly, Laika's story is a bit of a tear-jerker. She began her life on the streets of Moscow as a stray. Laika and many dogs like her (female dogs were preferred because of their placid temperament and to simplify the design for their space suits!) were rounded up for use in the Soviet space programme. She was launched into space in order to test the impact of space travel on a living being, before humans were used as passengers. Laika was the sole occupant of the Sputnik 2 craft that was launched into outer space on November 3rd 1957. She was the first animal to orbit the earth. However, she never made it back home. Laika died of heat exhaustion within hours of blasting off - a terribly sad end to her extraordinary tale.

2) Saturn would float in a bath

... if you could find a tub big enough! But why? Well, the reason behind this is the planet's density. The Earth, which is a rocky planet, is about 5 times denser than water. If you put the Earth into a bath tub, it would sink. On the other hand, Saturn, which is composed entirely of gas (it is called a "gas giant"), is less dense than water and would therefore float in a bath! I wonder if Saturn would enjoy a few bubbles and a glass of wine while it soaks?

the entrance hall of the national space centre, Leicester
two rockets on display at the National Space Centre, Leicester

3) The sport to have benefitted the most from space technology is ... golf!

You may not expect golfers and astronauts to have that much in common, but it is thanks to space travel that golf balls fly further down the fairway than ever before. Research into reducing drag on Space Shuttle tanks inspired the redesign of golfballs. The Wilson Ultra 500 golfball was the first to benefit from NASA's expertise. It featured an innovative dimple pattern that gave it a mathematically perfect design. This sustained the golf ball's initial speed for longer and produced stable flight through the air for unmatched accuracy and distance. So, next time you pot a hole in one, say a word of thanks to NASA!

4) You can wear makeup in space, but not nail varnish

Astronauts are permitted to wear makeup in space if they so desire, but nail varnish can't be taken along with them due to its flammability. When the time comes to take off the space lipstick and intergalactic contour and highlight, wet wipes will be on hand for this. The astronauts also use wet wipes to wash in their space crafts in place of a of a shower - showers are available on the international space station but because water supplies are limited, they can't shower daily. Instead of a regular toothbrush and toothpaste, they also use edible toothpaste which they simply swallow when done!

5) It took 400,000 people to put a man on the moon

NASA estimate that it took more than 400,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians to accomplish the moon landings - reflecting the vast number of systems and subsystems needed to send men there. Something that I was really pleased to see in the CAPCOM GO! The Apollo Story planetarium show was that the role of women, and particularly women of colour, in the successful space mission was really highlighted. It was fantastic to see photos of the diverse NASA team, including Margaret Hamilton who developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program, featured in the show. This hammered home the inspirational message that anyone, regardless of gender and race, has the potential to play a key role in a space mission.

Abbey, wearing a NASA t-shirt and dungarees, stands in a mock-up of a space craft
various space suits worn by mannequins in National Space Centre displays

As well as a fantastic learning experience, the National Space Centre was amazingly immersive. The planetarium show was a cut above your usual big screen cinema experience because the film was projected not only in front of you, but also above your head and behind you, making you completely forget that you were in a movie theatre! Another interactive display that thoroughly captivated me was getting the chance to drive a mini Mars rover across a rocky crater. You could really imagine yourself as a space engineer whilst at the controls, especially as a camera on the front of the rover showed you the view that a real technician would have when operating a similar device on the surface of the red planet!

Other available experiences included going through mock astronaut training in the Tranquillity zone, accruing points as you went. These were tallied up at the end to see if you'd make it through the training regime! I also really enjoyed the replica of a 1960's living room in the Rocket Tower, where you could watch footage from the 1969 moon landings on an old black and white TV. This really captured some of the wonder that viewers must've experienced when watching it live 50 years ago. The effect was enhanced by visitors having the chance to write their own memories of the moon landings on cards at the side of the room. Reading other visitors' reflections added a whole new level of appreciation to the experience.

A final aspect of the National Space Centre that drew praise from me was the incredible design of the place. Huge models stretched across the ceiling representing the asteroid belt and other features of our universe and even the cafe seating areas were themed around the neighbouring exhibits. Every minute you spent in the complex made you feel like you were at a real NASA base. As a PhD researcher myself, it was also really heartening to see displays about how Leicester fits into the history of space travel and the ongoing work that the university contributes to the understanding and exploration of our universe.

the exterior of the National Space Centre, Leicester
The space-themed cafe seating areas at the National Space Centre, Leicester

I was a little worried prior to my visit to the National Space Centre that it would mostly be geared toward children and while there were very many youngsters present on the Saturday when I made my trip, there was so much to keep adults entertained too. My boyfriend and I spent a full 3.5 hours there and we learned so much - the information was pitched just right, enabling those of any age to discover something new. I would highly recommend a visit to the Space Centre to anyone in the Leicestershire area! Ticket prices are £15 for adults, £12 for concessions and free for under 5's. You also have the option of upgrading to an annual pass for free! You can book on the National Space Centre website.

The National Space Centre is located on Exploration Drive, Leicester, LE4 5NS.

*My National Space Centre tickets were provided free of charge in exchange for a blog post review.