Toulouse is a lovely city in Southwestern France, known for its pink-tinged bricks, violets, and art museums. But it’s also a major center for air and space business and science. Airbus has its headquarters there. It was space science that brought me to Toulouse; my boyfriend was working with some space science researchers for a month. And one of Toulouse’s major tourist attractions is Cité de l’Espace [http://www.cite-espace.com/en], a theme park and science museum about space.
Cité de l’Espace isn’t about looking at space-related artifacts, and there aren’t many. It’s about having fun and learning scientific concepts. Most of my pictures are of one of us doing something, like the track that lets you bounce and soar as if you were in the low gravity in the moon.
Which was fun, and worth the half-hour wait in line.
They do have some actual stuff, though, like a section of a Soyuz spacecraft. The one they have is a training module.
You’ve probably heard of Soyuz. It was designed in the space-race days of the 1960s. Here’s the crazy thing, though–while the U.S. moved on from the Apollo designs, the Soviet Union didn’t.
The U.S. developed the Space Shuttle and the Soviets, and later the Russians, kept on using the Soyuz. The Shuttle has been retired–so when astronauts go to the International Space Station, they go in a Soyuz. The instruments have been updated since the 60s, but basically astronauts are getting to space today like some of the first cosmonauts did. It’s old, but it’s cheap and it works.
If you go to Cité de l’Espace, you can climb into a Soyuz, too. We happened to be walking by at the beginning of the two-hour window when it was open, so we were near the front of the line. And it was pretty cool. You take off your shoes, climb a few stairs, then lower yourself in through a hatch. It looks like it would be awfully cramped with three full-grown adults in there, but once you get inside it doesn’t seem so bad.
Once the astronauts are in space, there’s a second module they can go into, although I think it’s not particularly large, either. I imagine after two days together you’re ready for the comparative roominess of the International Space Station. Actually, I just learned, they’ve recently shown that it’s possible to get to the ISS in six hours, but it means maneuvering both the Soyuz and the space station very, very carefully, and they may just stick with the two-day plan in the future.
However you get up there, it only takes a few hours for a Soyuz to leave the station, enter the atmosphere, open its parachute, and go thunk on the ground somewhere in Central Asia.
Outside there are full-sized replicas of a Mir space station and an Ariane 5 rocket, the European Space Agency’s new way to get satellites into space.
Fun fact: The Ariana 5 is launched from French Guiana, along the northern edge of South America. When you launch something into space, you want a big stretch of open water to the east, to catch the bits of rockets that are meant to fall off. (And the ones that aren’t.) You also want to be near the equator, for reasons I understand less well. Note that these are two things the Guiana Space Centre has in common with Cape Canaveral.
The entrance fee to Cité de l’Espace is high, more than $25 when we were there, but you don’t have to pay extra for any of the attractions, like the aforementioned moonwalk, the IMAX, or the planetarium shows. And you learn a lot about space.