Ferry to the stars

David Bocking blasts off into the heavens at Spaceport on the Mersey and sees the universe from a whole new perspective

At one time, the new visitor attraction on the western bank of the Mersey was full of Model T Fords belonging to the merchants of 1920s Liverpool, says Ken Moss, spaceport's manager. "This was the first multistorey car park in Europe," he adds proudly. But now, after a pound;10 million refit, the listed building housing the Spaceport project is home to the Solar System, the Milky Way and, if you keep going, the entire universe.

The idea of Spaceport came from the desire to make a tourist attraction out of an old building by the Mersey ferry terminal, which also happened to be half a mile from the Astrophysics Research Institute of Liverpool's John Moores University. Opened last July, Spaceport now provides a journey into the stars for families and schools, and a base for the National School's Observatory, run by John Moores.

Catherine Howarth, deputy head of Lixwm Primary School, Flintshire, says:

"We've just started the QCA project on the Earth, Moon and stars, which is one of those units where you just can't go out and get hold of it. So the simulations at Spaceport are a good way of bringing it all to life."

Spaceport "crew member" Barbara Williams says: "We don't do a guided tour.

You start off in a pod which blasts you off to visit the space station, where you can explore." The ride through space is accompanied by a rumbling floor and blast-off sequence, and an audiovisual commentary on several screens covering the nearer solar system.

Then children learn about the Solar System accompanied by Spaceport crew members, one of whom is an astrophysicist from the nearby university. "Why do we have seasons? Because the Earth doesn't stand up straight," says Dave Lemon, drawing on several years' study at the Astrophysics Research Institute. Computers and 3D models explain the seasons, Moon phases and tidal movements, and displays give facts and figures about our Sun, Moon and fellow planets. There are interactive games covering space travel, Mars exploration and how astronauts wash, eat, exercise and, of course, go to the toilet.

After completing their worksheets, the 9 to 11-year-olds are guided down a starlit corridor to the domed Spaceport theatre to watch Oasis in Space, a sky-wide surround-sound flight through the universe in search of water. The 25-minute movie takes pupils through the vastness of the universe before arriving at our own Solar System and exploring Saturn and its rings and Jupiter's moon, Europa, where children are told there may be life under the ice sheets. "That was a really good way to show it all to you," says nine-year-old Sian Bryant. "It's so easy to understand, and it's a lot clearer with a big screen. "

After the show, there's another level to explore, covering the wider universe, the Big Bang and space exploration. As in the Solar System section, information is supported by movies, 3D models, games and quizzes.

And there's information on the National Schools Observatory, which can be accessed via the internet.

Spaceport provides a teachers' pack and a free teacher pre-visit. It is aimed at science and astronomy for key stages 2 and 3, but older pupils have also made use of Spaceport. And, if you can make it to Spaceport on a Saturday, there are regular demonstrations by the Starchaser organisation, which eventually aims to run commercial space flights for tourists. All in an old car park by the River Mersey.

* Child price for a school booking is pound;4.50, with an adult free for every six children or 10 per cent discount for every 20 in the party.

Groups must pre-book for discounts.

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