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A local hero and real-life astronaut was on hand Friday for the countdown and launch of the new Destination: Space! exhibit that will run through the start of the year 2000 at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Elma-native and NASA astronaut James A. Pawelczyk, a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in April 1998, provided a first-hand glimpse into space for many of the more than 100 Science Museum members at Friday's special sneak preview of the exhibit.

"Space is something that appeals to everybody -- especially kids," Pawelczyk said.

The astronaut, who was sung a happy 39th birthday by those in attendance, told the children and parents assembled that he was very young and growing up in Western New York when he developed a fascination with science and space.

"Being an astronaut is something I was interested in being since I was five years old," said Pawelczyk, a 1978 graduate of Iroquois Central School. "That's the key -- finding something you like and love and becoming the best at it.

"The thing everyone in space science is looking to now is a mission to Mars -- I think that will happen in the first 30 years of the next century. These kids here (of their generation) will be on those missions," he said later. "I hope that's what they're thinking about -- that each one of them does have that possibility and capability within them."

Pawelczyk, Mayor Masiello and Museum President Michael J. Smith, along with several children from the community, cut the ribbon to the 6,000-square-foot exhibit, officially opening Destination: Space! to the public.

The first of its kind to be housed in a newly renovated temporary exhibit hall at the museum, the exhibit features a triaxial astronaut trainer that simulates disorientation from weightlessness, a space technology demo, space life lab, hands-on exhibits and more than 75 original works of art by Robert McCall, a noted artist for NASA.

The exhibit was developed by the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, and is currently on a 62-museum tour across the nation. The Buffalo Museum of Science is only one of three museums in the state to host the exhibit. Syracuse and Long Island are the others.

"It's a real hands-on exhibit," said Smith, the museum president. "We want people to come here, spend some time and find things entertaining, enjoyable and educational. (Pawelczyk's) visit is real exciting for us especially when he's someone from the community who can come back and be a role model for kids."

The exhibit will open to the public today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and continue on display through Jan. 2. The public is invited to meet Pawelczyk at the museum between 1 and 3 p.m. today.

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