Across the final frontier

David Whitley launches himself on an exploration of the universe with feet firmly on Earth.

The era of passenger flights into space isn't far away. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo had its maiden flight on Monday and the company hopes to soon offer public sub-orbital flights. Work on its specialist spaceport in the New Mexico desert is under way. The only slight snag is that tickets for a ride on Richard Branson's new toy cost $US200,000 ($218,000). Luckily, there are other options for would-be astronauts wanting a taste of the space experience.

Johnson Space Centre

Houston, Texas

NASA's main space centre - well, part of it, anyway - is open to the public. For staff, this means having to hear "Houston, we have a problem" jokes on a near constant basis but there's plenty to keep visitors enthralled.

It's possible to poke around both the current and historic mission control centres on a tram tour, while the Saturn V Complex at the Rocket Park is also included.

There are two theatres - the Blast Off Theatre simulates a shuttle launch experience while the Astronaut Gallery has a vast collection of space suits and memorabilia.

The Feel of Space exhibit is also good fun - a mission briefing officer explains how basic tasks such as eating and showering are done in a microgravity environment and there are plenty of pieces of on-board equipment to play with.

See spacecenter.org.

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Kennedy Space Centre

Orlando, Florida

NASA's main launch facility has an enormous array of options for visitors - site tours just scratch the surface. Visitors can meet astronauts, mooch around the Astronaut Hall of Fame and book special packages for observing shuttle launches.

There's also an IMAX theatre, a "rocket garden" featuring a selection of retired craft sitting under dramatic lighting and a full-scale mock-up of the International Space Station.

It's also possible to undergo a hands-on Astronaut Training Experience from $US145 plus tax.

This half-day program includes space flight simulators and a full space shuttle mission simulation, with training from NASA experts. In the latter, participants have to work together as a team to orbit the Earth, dock at the International Space Station and perform vital repairs.

It's not the real thing but you're made to feel as though it's pretty close.

See kennedyspacecenter.com.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur, Kazakhstan

The biggest space launch facility in the world can be found in the middle of nowhere. Currently leased to the Russians until 2050, the Baikonur Cosmodrome was where the first satellite was launched in 1957. Yuri Gagarin also became the first man in space after taking off from Baikonur in 1961.

Trips to Baikonur are nowhere near as simple as those to the key NASA hubs and are generally available only in multi-day organised tours. Country of Tourism (bestrussiantour.com) offers packages timed to coincide with Soyuz rocket launches for €2500 ($3812) a person, with departures from Moscow.

See russianspaceweb.com/baikonur.

National Air and Space Museum

Washington DC

Coming under the giant Smithsonian umbrella, the National Air and Space Museum is arguably the best museum-style space attraction in the world.

One of the key highlights in the collection is the original 1903 Wright Flyer - the first aircraft in which man achieved powered flight - but there are some big drawcards from the space flight era, too.

These include the Apollo 11 command module, an IMAX theatre and the Albert Einstein Planetarium.

The last two host impressive shows about space, while the 22 exhibitions in the museum include great displays on the space race with the Soviet Union and the 1969 moon landings.

See nasm.si.edu.

Armstrong Air and Space Museum

Wapakoneta, Ohio

The scale isn't as impressive as the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum but this one in an obscure Ohio town has history on its side.

Wapakoneta is the birthplace of the first man to set foot on the moon. Neil Armstrong is the town's most famous son and he has donated artefacts to the museum. These include the suits he wore on his space missions and lunar rock that he and Buzz Aldrin collected on their missions.

There are also items belonging to the first man in space - Yuri Gagarin - and a space shuttle landing simulator for those who prefer things a little more high-tech.

See aviationheritagearea.org/armstrong.htm.

Arecibo Observatory

Arecibo, Puerto Rico

There might not be space suits or simulators at the Arecibo Observatory but it's still a mighty impressive display.

The observatory's radio telescope - which seems to burst out of the surrounding rainforest - is the largest in the world. Movie fans may recognise it from the Bond film Goldeneye, and Jodie Foster's Contact. The telescope is 305 metres in diameter and is the most sensitive on Earth. This makes Arecibo vital in our efforts to map out and monitor space.

Isango (isango.com) offers tours to and around the observatory for about $130 a person. The tours also take in the Rio Camuy Caves on the way.

See www.naic.edu.

Zero-G Experience

Las Vegas, Nevada

It's not quite space flight but the weightlessness adventure offered by Zero-G Experience in the US is the closest you can get without splashing out on Virgin Galactic.

It doesn't come cheap - prices start at $US4950 a person - but this is what Tom Hanks used while training for Apollo 13.

During the flight, the specially modified Boeing 727 goes to a high altitude where the pilot executes manoeuvres called parabolas. These curving swoops bring on the same weightlessness you'd get in space; 12 to 15 goes at floating around inside the plane are included before landing.

See gozerog.com.

Deep Space Communication Complex

Tidbinbilla, ACT

Australia's own space hub is rather humble by comparison with those in the US and Kazakhstan but the Visitor Centre at the Deep Space Communication Complex near Canberra is still worth a look.

There are great views over the largest antenna complex in the southern hemisphere, while the highlights inside include models of spacecraft as well as hardware that has made it up into orbit.

The latest images beamed back from Mars are on display, as are ancient chunks of the moon and exhibitions on what life in space is like for astronauts.

See www.cdscc.nasa.gov.

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