I must admit I did chuckle when I first found out the UK had a Space Centre, and that it was in Leicester! I’m not sure why, but it just tickled me. I guess I’m used to seeing NASA in all the space movies and to think that the equivalent of that is in Leicester!
I wasn’t sure how appropriate it would be for nearly 3-year-old Little Miss and her friend, but I found out there are ‘toddler takeover’ days throughout the year, so I thought there must be enough for that age to see and do. So off we went.
What is at the National Space Centre?
The space centre is set out in a large circle with lots of different areas/galleries.
The galleries and exhibits
We started with the Planets. I have to say that my first impression was that there wasn’t a lot for toddlers to engage with in this area. There was a display on each of the planets, and personally, I found it very interesting (since when was it that Pluto wasn’t a planet?!) but Little Miss and friend preferred running around and playing hide and seek behind things. There were lots of older children the day we visited, and you could see that they were really getting into the exhibits.
There was a meteorology booth where you could go in and read a weather forecast, we didn’t do that, but older children seemed to be finding that a lot of fun.
We then moved onto Exploring the Universe – again, very interesting for adults and older children, but not so much for the preschool age group. I was starting to think we’d had a very long car journey for nothing.
But then we hit Into Space. And the National Space Centre redeemed itself! This area is all about astronauts, spacesuits and our journey into space. Little Miss and her friend loved it! There was a little rack of dress-up spacesuits that they put on (to be fair, there were little racks in the other areas, but they hadn’t been interested in dressing up in those). There were things for the girls to climb in and out of. There was a game to test reaction speed (hitting lit-up lights) that they wanted to play again and again and again. There was a toy space rocket to build out of foam shapes. And the one thing they both loved was the TV screens playing a launch sequence – we sat through that twice before lunch, and then had to go back after lunch.
And for adults, there’s plenty here as well. There were stories from the first astronauts into space, also an exhibit on women in space. Apparently in the 1950/60s women were invited to NASA to take the space ‘tests’ and actually performed better than the men, but at the time they were never given the opportunity to go into space.
Space rocket in Boosters café
In the middle of the café is a space rocket. Seriously, there really is a space rocket and every now and then it launches. When I say ‘launches’, I mean there is a countdown and the bottom of the rocket glows red and dry ice comes out. Little Miss really freaked out when this happened, as we were sitting quite close to the bottom of the rocket at lunch time (not realising this is what happened). It was quite effective and a bit of a novelty.
You can take a glass lift up the side of the space rocket – there are three further exhibits about the USA vs Russia space race on three levels of the space rocket.
Flight simulator, interactive exhibits and the 360⁰ theatre
In Tranquillity Base, the last exhibit before you leave the main part of the centre, there is a flight simulator, the S.I.M, which takes you on a ride from a lunar base to Europa (one of Jupiter’s planets), but the girls were too small to do this, so we skipped it. We did however do some of the ‘tests’ in the Tranquillity Base – including a moon walk and loading the supply station. The idea of the Tranquillity Base it that you scan you entry ticket at each of the tests, then at the end you are given a grade as to whether you would make a trainee astronaut. Unfortunately not all the tests were working, and of those that were, the bar code scanners didn’t work on some. A shame, as this would be really fun for older children.
We saw a short film called We are Aliens in the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium (a 360⁰ theatre). I found it quite interesting and the girls seemed to quite enjoy the whole 360⁰ experience, although I think the subject matter went completely over their heads.
There are a lot of special events at the Space Centre, especially over school holidays. See the National Space Centre website for details about all the upcoming events.
After a shaky start, in the end the Space Centre was a great day out for preschool aged children. I think older children would get even more out of it. We paid £13 an adult (under 5s go free) and because we bought tickets in advance online we got a free upgrade to an annual pass. Would I go again? Yes, but not for a while. If it was closer, I probably would – it is a perfect rainy day activity.
All the important bits
The National Space Centre is located just off the A6, two miles north of Leicester City Centre, midway between Leicester’s inner and outer ring roads. Brown road signs with a distinctive rocket logo will direct you from the arterial routes around Leicester. The postcode is LE4 5NS.
There is a large car park adjacent to the Space Centre. It costs £2 to park all day. If you book tickets online, you can also purchase car parking at the same time.
Tickets and prices
Tickets cost £13 for an adult and £11 for children 5 – 16 years. Under 5s go free. If you buy online you can upgrade for free to annual membership (and also skip the queues when you arrive).
Eating and drinking
Personally I thought the Booster Café left a lot to be desired. The seating area was fine with plenty of tables, but the food/serving area was tiny. When we first saw it we thought perhaps it was just a snack bar and that the ‘proper’ café was located somewhere else. But no, it really is that small. There were two bench-top chillers with sandwiches, wraps and rolls, which I think is a little limited for a place this big. There is no hot food, except soup. Kids could choose a sandwich, snack, drink and piece of fruit for about £3.50. We ate early (about 11.30) and by the time we finished people were queuing through the entrance area to be served. I don’t think it was a particularly busy day that we went, so I hate to think what it would be like in the weekend.
There are toilets just near the entrance with baby changing facilities. There are also toilets near the Orbiting Earth exhibit in the main gallery. It’s very easy to get a buggy around the Space Centre and there are lifts to the different levels.
In the café there is a microwave to heat baby food and booster seats to strap onto the chairs.