03/27/2012 04:06 pm ET Updated May 27, 2012

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Outer Space

As I mentioned last week, I had a lot of space-related places that I wanted to visit over spring break, but because my parents still had work that week, I had to do them all in one day, which turned out to be the same day I heard astronaut Ron Garan speak at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and got to interview him. But quite a few funny (and exciting) things happened on the way to the Cradle...

First of all, I had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. in order to ride into New York City with my father, so the day had an early start. Now, that's earlier than I usually wake up, especially on vacation, but I was too excited to feel tired as I got dressed and gathered up my things. Before I knew it, we were out the door and heading for the highway. The drive into the city was dark and rainy, and we passed the time by alternatively listening to traffic reports and talking about space. (I surprised myself with how philosophical I could be at 5:30 a.m.)

As we entered the city area, we passed Corona Park. The Unisphere looked lovely, lit up white in the predawn darkness. I've read a lot about the 1964 World's Fair, and listened to my parents' stories about attending it, but I've never been able to stop and visit the fairgrounds. Maybe next time...

By the time we got to my grandparents' apartment, it was 7 a.m., and sleepiness was starting to catch up with me. I greeted my grandmother and then went to lie down. She told me that my cousin Alana was sleeping in the other room and had asked to be woken up at 8 to say hello to me. An hour of sleep sounded like a good idea, so I asked my grandmother to wake me up at 8 as well.

However, she thought we were both sleeping so soundly that she let us sleep until I woke up at 9:30. We had some breakfast before Alana and I set off for my first destination, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum. The last time I'd been to the Intrepid was in August of 2010, before they'd been announced as the future home of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, so I was eager to see how the museum was preparing for the shuttle's arrival.

Alana had never been to the Intrepid before so, after passing through the admissions building, we went up the Hangar Deck, where there are introductory displays about the ship and its history. There was a display right at the entrance announcing the upcoming arrival of the Enterprise and showing illustrations of how it will be displayed on the Flight Deck upon arrival. We checked out a model of Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7 capsule that the Intrepid recovered in 1962, as well as the temporary exhibit on women in World War II aviation. In the hands-on zone, we climbed inside a model Gemini capsule, the size of which amazed Alana. She said she couldn't imagine spending two weeks in one! (And, frankly, neither could I!)

We headed up to the Flight Deck, saw the outline of where the Enterprise will be displayed, and took in the awesome view of the Hudson River. Sadly, we didn't have time to go and see my favorite plane at the museum, Concorde Alpha-Delta, (although we did get to look down on her from the Flight Deck), because we had to grab lunch. Alana headed back to my grandparents' apartment, while I caught a cab to my next destination -- the New York City Center for Space Science Education.

I'd run into some people who worked there a few years ago at the American Museum of Natural History when I'd been visiting with my family on the afternoon before a nighttime benefit event for the center. They'd invited me to visit, but since the location had always been far from places my family had been visiting in the city, it just hadn't worked out until now. I wondered what it would be like. My only real reference for the experience of visiting a Challenger Learning Center was the (most excellent) novel Star Challengers: Moonbase Crisis. Somehow, I doubted I'd be chosen to travel into the future and help save humanity like the kids in the book. (But hey, I can dream, right? And, you know, just in case Commander Zota is reading this, I would totally be OK with that...)

After a little trouble finding the building, I headed up to the entrance. The street outside was very ordinary-looking, but when I peered through the circular windows in the double doors, I felt as though I was looking into a science-fiction movie. I was staring into a blue and orange corridor decorated with chrome that was lit only by blue LEDs in the walls. The doors were locked, but I found the doorbell and rang it. Peter Giles, the teacher I'd been in contact with, greeted me at the door.

After eating lunch with the center staff in the Aeronautics room, they let me try a flight simulator. I managed to take off from LaGuardia Airport, navigate to another airport, and land, all without crashing, something I felt very proud of given my general lack of video-game skills. Then I got to play with the wind tunnel, adjusting the speed and angle of attack and watching the results on the SmartBoard.

"This sure beats a textbook to heck!" I declared.

After playing around in the Aeronautics room, Mr. Giles took me to the rooms where schoolchildren on field trips actually do their simulated "missions." The first room roughly resembled the space shuttle middeck, and a movie showed a shuttle launching and flying to the International Space Station.

"I apologize for the old, bad CGI picture of the ISS. We need to replace that." Mr. Giles said.

"That's okay, I'm a '90s kid. I grew up with CGI pictures of the ISS!" I told him.

"Well, kids now didn't. They're used to pictures of the real thing." He replied, after laughing. (Insert get-off-my-lawn joke here.)

We went through the dark airlock into the "spacecraft" room. (I'm not going to lie, although I didn't tell Mr. Giles, part of me hoped that I'd feel lunar gravity when I stepped out the other side, but, alas, it was not to be.) I tried using robotic arms to complete some tasks in sealed compartments -- I managed to pick up a metal plate and drop it in a bin, but picking up an Erlenmeyer flask proved too difficult.

After looking at everything, and taking lots of photographs, I headed into the Mission Control room, where I surprised Mr. Giles by being able to identify every mission patch on the wall. (Sadly, the large patch-plaques were custom-made, so I can't get them for my dorm room or my room at home.) I wandered around looking at the guidebooks each "Flight Controller" had explaining their job.

It reminded me a lot of my great experiences at Space Camp a few summers back, although these simulations -- landing on Mars and flying to Comet Halley -- were more futuristic than the shuttle-and-station missions I'd done there. My one regret was that I wasn't there when students were doing a mission, so that I could watch and make a more equal comparison. However, from what I saw, I think the kids who go to the school that's attached to the center are incredibly lucky. (And I thought my high school was cool for having a planetarium!)

Sadly, I didn't have time to see everything at the center, because I had to catch a taxi to the school where my dad was working so I we could head to the Cradle of Aviation. So I thanked the center employees for everything and told them I hoped I could come back soon.

Two adventures down, but still one to go.