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The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Brings Space Home

By Vanessa Nason

Founded on the tenant that classrooms should extend into the community, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH allows kids of all ages to learn about astronomy in an engaging, hands-on way.

"The role of a science center is, in many ways, to be a bridge between the scientists and engineers making the discoveries [and] inventing the new technology, and the public," says Jeanne T. Gerulskis, executive director of the Discovery Center. "We strive to convey basic scientific concepts to enable our visitors of all ages to develop the tools they need to understand the science and engineering, to engage our visitors in seeing how much fun science and engineering can be and to deliver really interesting scientific and engineering content."

To aid its function as an exciting learning environment and a bridge between families and space, the Discovery Center features two floors of exhibits, both permanent and traveling. "Our Space Shuttle landing simulator, Star Pilot, is an old favorite," says Gerulskis. This allows visitors to try their hand at landing a space shuttle. Among others, there is a 1956 Crusader Jet, currently on long-term loan from the National Naval Aviation Museum, a replica of the Mars Rover, and a new satellite display called CATSTAT, which was created alongside students from the University of New Hampshire and detects gamma rays.

Besides the exhibits and an observatory, the Discovery Center also boasts a state-of-the-art planetarium. New SkySkan technology transforms what was once a traditional planetarium into a theater showing journeys throughout space. "We can travel to the boundaries of the known universe," says Gerulskis, "or see what the sky looked like from the Gobi Desert 5,000 years ago, or what it will look like to a human looking up from the Martian planet 3,000 years from now."

The Discovery Center was created as first a memorial to Christa McAuliffe, the Concord, NH social studies teacher who tragically lost her life in 1986 on her mission to become NASA's first Teacher in Space, and then to Admiral Alan B. Shepard, a Derry, NH native and America's first astronaut in space. Today, it attracts community members and serves as a field trip destination to approximately 10,000 students, ages Kindergarten through 12th grade, from four New England states. Gerulskis says that those at the Discovery Center share in McAuliffe's deep belief that students need to leave the classroom to continue learning and to reinforce what they are taught in school.

"Our role is to enable young people to experiment, explore, and get inspired to learn more," she says. "A field trip to the Discovery Center can be the spark that ignites a lifelong desire to learn."

The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center is a nonprofit, currently in its third year of independent operation. Their Reach for the Stars Campaign kicks off in June, as a way to secure gifts from community members to continue their mission of bringing the mysteries and excitements of space home.

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Paul Rowe is a graduate instructor of writing and master's student of Literature at...

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