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Bringing heavens to earth Portable planetarium lets pupils in Lockport venture into space

There may be no better way to enjoy a summer day than spending it in the dark inside a 12-foot-high silver bubble looking at slides of the moon and the constellations.

At least 20 Lockport area elementary and secondary school pupils Wednesday said they appreciated being inside a portable space lab, which is part of the summer children's program sponsored by the local History Center. The space program was put on by the area's fledgling Challenger Learning Center of Orleans, Niagara and Erie Counties, which is located in the histotric old Post Office at One East Ave.

The children spent six hours gleaning all types of information about space, space travel and many particulars a young person might want to know about the moon and space exploration -- even the freeze-dried food astronauts depend on for nourishment during space missions.

They even got to drink Tang, the orange drink made famous by the U.S. space program during the 1960s. They each were given a packet of freeze-dried ice cream to enjoy at home.

Most of the information was provided by Mark Percy, an astronomy teacher who teaches at the Williamsville North High School planetarium, who was helping Challenger Learning Center officials with the program.

Huddled inside the portable space lab -- held up by a fan pumping in air to hold up the bubble -- the pupils listened as Percy taught them about the moon and its banged-up surface, and why astronauts landed their ships on certain flat areas called marias so they didn't have accidents and could keep in communication with NASA officials during a mission.

Most of the young people loved being inside the portable "Starlab Planetarium," lent to the Challenger by the Buffalo Public Schools.

"I liked going inside it in the dark and getting to see the moon and all the stars. It's like being inside a big balloon," said Emelie Matthies, 9, who will be a fourth-grader at Roy B. Kelley Elementary School in September.

Emelie said she learned a lot.

"I didn't know they named a lot of stuff like the moon's craters after scientists," including some ancient Greek scientists who lived long go, Emelie said.

William Blackley, 10, a home-schooled sixth-grader, said, "I liked learning how craters were formed on the moon by asteroids and volcanos. I didn't know about that." He also said he liked Percy's showing them "how to use your imagination" to see shapes on the moon like the man in the moon and a bunny.

Scott Cummings, 11, a soon-to-be-fifth-grader at Washington Hunt Elementary School, said he liked seeing how volcanic eruptions on the moon erased some of the craters that were made when the moon was hit by asteroids millions of years ago. He also said he thought the portable planetarium would make a great "clubhouse."

Jeffrey Wojcinski, 11, a sixth-grader at DeSales Elementary School, said, "I learned the moon is hot and cold at the same time, depending on where the sun is shining as it's rotating."

History Center officials, part of the Niagara County Historical Society, said the space program was just one of many they offer schoolchildren over the summer.

Kathy Michaels of the Challenger Center said her operation is just getting off the ground and is looking for donations to help develop more sophisticated programs to offer area residents, organizations and schools. She said her organization is awaiting government approval of its request for tax-exempt status so it can get going on fundraising.

Checks may be made out to the Challenger Learning Center of Orleans, Niagara and Erie Counties, One East Ave., Lockport, NY 14094-3724, Michaels said.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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