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Family Adventures Close to Home:
A Visit to the Chabot Space Center
By Rosie Ruley Atkins
"George Bush wants us to go to Mars," Miles says. My 8-year-old son is in the back seat of the car with his buddy Chris. They're looking at a chart of the solar system as we cross the Bay Bridge.
"If everyone on Earth went to Mars, it would be really crowded," says Chris, also 8. "Mars is much smaller than Earth."
"Oh no," I say. "Mars is actually bigger than Earth."
I'm absolutely sure that I'm right. My Girl Scout troop visited the Mariah Mitchell Observatory in my hometown almost every month when I was in grade school. Based on this, I believe that I know astronomy.
"Sorry," Chris says with the certainty that being in second grade brings. "Mars is smaller. I learned it on television."
"If it was on TV, it must be true," I say.
I'm patient. I'll be proved right once we get to the Chabot Space & Science Center.
We arrive at Chabot at 5:30 p.m. Set among the redwoods of Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland Hills, the facility's corrugated metal exterior glows golden and pink in the late afternoon sun.
"Cool!" both boys exclaim. They decide that the building looks like a spaceship docked onto a space center.
Inside, we explore the "Our Place in the Universe" exhibit, which uses Oakland as a starting point for a trip through the solar system, the Milky Way, and deep space. The boys stop at Uranus to make a few jokes.
"Hey, Mom," Miles calls. "We're in front of Uranus."
"Uranus is between Saturn and Neptune," Chris adds.
They dissolve in giggles as my husband and I try to maintain serious parental expressions. As we pass, my husband, Mr. Mature, whispers, "Uranus is smaller than I thought it would be."
The boys hear him and crack up again. By now, one of the docents is eyeing us, hoping we'll leave the galaxy quickly. We pause on our way out to experience the kaleidoscope hallway, a disorienting triangle of mirrors that allows you to see yourself from every conceivable angle, whether you want to or not.
On the second floor, we enter the "Mars Encounter" exhibit through a set of red plastic curtains. At this point, Chris is claiming that Earth is three times larger than Mars, but I'm not buying it. I search the posters and informational web pages for proof that I'm right about Mars being larger, but I come up empty. Mr. Mature is urging me to "let it go."
I'm distracted from my quest by the exhibit's wacky charm. It's unexpectedly irreverent, using B movies and 1950s graphics to show humankind's age-old fascination with the Red Planet. We chuckle at the costumes in the film loop of Destination Mars, which is playing in the tiny theater, and then check out the "Mission to Mars" computer simulation.
Miles and Chris work as a team to put together everything a manned mission to Mars needs. They choose the type of rocket and fuel, and debate the relative merits of bringing water or just a water purifier.
"A purifier converts waste to water," Miles reads. When I explain what that means, the boys scream, "Oh, gross!" and choose to carry water with them.
As they pick the crew, Miles makes it a point to select only male astronauts, and scoffs each time I suggest that they include a woman. When it's time to launch their all-male mission to Mars, the computer tells them that they've gone $370 million over budget.
"What's a budget?" Chris asks.
"It's how much money you get to spend," I tell him.
"We should be able to spend whatever we want," he protests.
"You should work for NASA," Mr. Mature laughs.
Rather than trim the expenses on their mission, Miles and Chris let their rocket languish on the launch pad and move on to other interactive parts of the exhibit.
Mr. Mature and I are amazed by the photographs sent back to Earth by the Mars Rover buggies Spirit and Opportunity. The panoramic images of the vast, desolate planet with the pinkish sky are oddly moving, causing people to pause and whisper when gazing at them. When I ask Miles why he thinks they have this effect, he says, "Well, Mars is really far from here, and somebody had to imagine that we could go there and take pictures before it happened. People are amazed by the imagining that person did."
I forgive him for choosing only men for his Mission to Mars crew.
Chris and Miles check out a display of antique telescopes while Mr. Mature and I step outside to enjoy the last moments of the sunset from the triangular metal decks that jut from the building. Perched above a grove of redwoods, looking down on Oakland, the Bay, both bridges, and San Francisco, I realize that we've discovered the absolute best place in the Bay Area to catch a sunset.
Inside, we make our way to the planetarium to see the "Return to the Red Planet" show.
The lights go down and the narrator orients us in the projected night sky, moving his pointer past the Big Dipper and Ursa Minor and then pausing at a particularly bright star near the dome's horizon. He tells us this is Mars, and rattles off a few facts about the distance from the sun and the planet's gravitational pull. Then he says it. "Mars is not as large as Earth."
Two seats away, Chris says, "Yessssss!" I glance over and he's pumping his fist with glee.
"Told ya," he mouths at me. Mr. Mature and Miles are delighted that I'm wrong.
"Jupiter's bigger," I tell Chris. "A lot bigger."
At the end of the show, the narrator apologizes that Mars is too low in the night sky for us to see it through Chabot's telescopes, but he promises that we'll get a clear view of Saturn and its rings.
We step into the cold clear night and find a short line of people waiting at the Observatory Complex. The telescope is trained on Saturn, which appears to the naked eye as a bright star just below the half moon.
While we wait, we check out the telescope an amateur astronomer has trained on the moon. The image is amazingly bright, with the craters and other features so clear that I expect to see Neil Armstrong's American flag still planted in the Sea of Tranquility.
When our turn comes to view Saturn, I climb a steep ladder to look through the huge telescope. Saturn, rings and all, seems so close that I could touch it. Hovering just to the side is Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
The effect of actually seeing these celestial bodies is exhilarating, and somehow dizzying. I descend the ladder reluctantly, ceding the view to Miles.
He struggles with the eyepiece for a moment, before calling out, "I see it! Wow! Cool! Wow!" He pulls his eye away and asks me if I really saw it.
"Yes," I say.
"How did you stay so quiet?" he asks.
Chris and Mr. Mature are equally excited by the view, and we pepper the astronomer in charge of the telescope with questions and exclamations. He patiently answers our questions and then tells me, "Saturn is absolutely amazing. It's the best one for kids."
"Besides Uranus," Miles says.
Mr. Mature and I crack up. m
If You Go to Chabot
In our three hours at Chabot, we visited only a fraction of the exhibits, classes, and activities offered. Since most of the hands-on activities involve some level of reading, I wouldn't recommend the museum part for younger kids, but there were plenty of 3- to 6-year-olds viewing the night sky through the telescope.
The Celestial Café offers sandwiches, salads, and drinks, at surprisingly affordable prices.
Hours are Fridays, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Telescope viewing is 7 to 10 p.m., weather permitting.
Observatory hours change during summer months. Check the web site for schedules and weather: www.chabotspace.org.
From the Bay Bridge: Go east on I-580 to Highway 24 (toward Walnut Creek). From 24, go south on Highway 13 (Warren Freeway) toward Hayward. Take the Joaquin Miller/Lincoln Avenue exit. Turn left and proceed up the hill on Joaquin Miller to the crest, then turn left at the signal onto the two-lane portion of Skyline Boulevard. Chabot Space & Science Center is 1.3 miles up Skyline on the right.
If you have a Bay Area adventure you'd like writer Rosie Ruley Atkins to explore, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.