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SPACE // BLAST OFF! to the Astronaut Hall of Fame

Powerful rockets and shuttles crash through clouds as fuel and flames propel them into mysterious outer worlds.

Astronauts _ those people with a license to drive in space _ are a special group of people. And if you've ever wanted to know more about them, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame is a great place to start.

Five years before the movie Apollo 13 ignited a passion for space history, the small museum opened just 13 miles west of Kennedy Space Center.

At first it was just a place to learn more about the first astronauts, the men from Mercury Seven and Gemini. But with the addition of more memorabilia and four new interactive exhibits (the Astronaut Adventure), the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame is now a rocketing place to hang out.

"A lot of kids know the shuttle because they've grown up with it, but they really have no idea of the history," said Brian Wright, spokesman for the Astronaut Hall of Fame. "It's neat to see them get in here and see the first capsules."

About 500 people visit the Astronaut Hall of Fame every day and one-third of those visitors are kids, Wright said. The museum's hands-on exhibits are designed to help museum-goers relate to space, gravity and astrophysical information.

"It's one thing to tell kids Newton's Third Law of Motion _ for every action there's an opposite and equal reaction _ but when you put them in one of our simulators they can fully understand the concept," Wright said.

A visit to the museum starts with a time tunnel of information on the space program's first astronauts. Patrons get a quick hit of history while watching TV screens and viewing exhibit cases.

Nearby, each of the original seven astronauts has his own exhibit pod decorated with memorabilia either from flights or personal collections (report card, letter jacket, hat, volleyball).

"This is what the museum is about, the personal lives of the astronauts," Wright said. "We refer to Buzz Aldrin's report card when talking to kids and say: Look, this is Buzz Aldrin, man. He got straight A's. He's an astronaut. So that's what you need to shoot for right there."

Wright says what interests kids most at the museum are the Astronaut Adventure simulators. Using a computer terminal with help from an audio guide, the Shuttle Landing Simulator allows visitors to bring the Columbia in for a landing.

One of the oddest simulators to watch from the sidelines is the Virtual Zero-G. A digitized image on the screen allows you to watch yourself floating around Skylab (America's first space station). "Kids get to play around. You see them flailing their arms and they like to see themselves on TV," Wright said.

At the back of the museum, you'll find a pair of action-packed simulators.

The 3-D 360 simulates a combat training mission. Up to 16 passengers can don 3-D glasses and board a motion-based theater that banks, pitches and barrel rolls guests.

Next door is the G-Force Trainer, which gives riders the sensation of flying their own jet. The machine spins fast and furiously, and pulls up to 4-Gs (it's not the Tilt-a-Whirl). Kids have to be at least 48 inches tall to ride these two simulators.

After giving your insides a real whack from simulated space motion, you can take a walk outside to the Shuttle to Tomorrow. This is a full-scale space shuttle orbiter mock-up (it does look very real), and it's the first thing you'll see as you drive up to the museum. Inside the shuttle, you'll view a multi-media presentation.

While there, museum visitors also can observe space camp demonstrations (U.S. Space Camp shares land and building space with the Astronaut Hall of Fame), get a photo taken with a roving space-suited someone, watch Reach for the Stars (an 11-minute movie about space) or shop at the Space Gear Shop.

If you go to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, expect to spend about two hours or more. And don't forget to check out the autograph board that invites all visitors to write a statement about where they were during the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Most kids write blurbs like, "Sorry, I was not born," but older folks have the chance to make it more interesting.

Admission: $9.95 for adults and $5.95 for children 3-12.

Directions: From the Tampa Bay area, take Interstate 4 east to State Road 528/Beeline Expressway. Exit 528 to State Road 407 and then go east on State Road 405. The Astronaut Hall of Fame is west of Kennedy Space Center at 6225 Vectorspace Blvd. in Titusville. For information, call (407) 269-6100.

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