Space Age Appropriate: Science Museums for Kids in NYC

Alyssa Grossman

(Updated 05/06/2015)

NASA's space shuttle program may be over, but public interest in these unique spacecraft and their missions has hardly run out of fuel. In 2012, the space shuttle orbiter Enterprise took one final flight (on the back of a 747, no less), leaving its spot at Washington, DC's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and ultimately landing in an exhibition at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. "Space tourism" is increasingly becoming a reality, but in the meantime, kids and teens of all ages can fill up on planetary education and entertainment citywide. Fasten your seat belts and read on for the coolest ways children can discover space in New York City. Find out where to dig through archives of orbiting history, see an out-of-this-world planetarium show or hit a golf ball by understanding, and using, the laws of motion and gravity.

Courtesy, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
Head to this on-the-water institution at Pier 86 on the Hudson River for a day packed with space-themed activities. The Space Shuttle Pavilion's orbiter Enterprise takes center stage here. Families can walk under the historic vehicle and step up to a platform for a picture-perfect perspective. The pavilion also features a space capsule, recordings of mission control dialogue and exhibit displays packed with artifacts, audio, video and photos that depict the shuttle's role in advancing space travel. Check the museum's calendar for tours and other events that complement the pavilion's displays.

Big Bang Theater. Photo: ©AMNH\D. Finnin

American Museum of Natural History
If your kids think they already know everything about space, head over to the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium for Dark Universe. The latest space show takes families on a journey that reveals questions about the cosmos. The program begins in the solar system we already know and then takes audience members to the Mount Wilson Observatory in California to discover the work of Edwin Hubble, known for his groundbreaking findings on the universe and the Big Bang. Famed astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson provides narration, exploring the latest issues in planetary science, including the mystery of dark matter.

Visitors can also soak up some knowledge at the museum's once-a-month family series (which goes on hiatus during the summer months). The program has an alternating roster of topics geared toward ages 4 through 11, and space is often the theme. Go beyond the Big Dipper and discover other constellations or hear about the myths and tales inspired by shapes in the night sky.

Photo: Destry Saul

Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach
Curious older kids and teens can attend free public lectures, followed by a full 90 minutes of rooftop stargazing, hosted by this branch of Columbia University's astronomy department. Past Friday-night sessions have included "How Big Is the Solar System?", "How Is a Hubble Image Made?" and "Where the Ocean Meets the Sky."

For younger children, ages 6 to 12, there's the Family Astro session, held two times a year. Among the themes are solar eclipses, meteors and comets. Check regularly for the most up-to-date event information—announcements about the sessions are sent to the organization's email list, so sign up for the mailing list to receive invitations.

Photo: Heather Weston

Carmelo the Science Fellow
Carmelo Piazza started his rise to local fame back in 2005. Before long, parents were lining up at 4:30am to sign up for his courses, as noted by a New York Times article that dubbed Piazza "the rock star of science class." By day, he's a public school teacher, but when school hours are over, this comical educator heads to Cosmic Cove—his outpost on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue—for hands-on projects that won't make it onto any report card. The lineup of classes changes each season, and past space exploration-themed lesson plans have included creating night-vision flashlights, assembling a telescope, designing a rocket ship and making comets. Check for updated schedules, including preschool science playgroups.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

New York Hall of Science
This Queens institution has space exploration down to a science—literally. For children of all ages, this is an engaging journey; young ones will be entertained with mindbending games and exhibitions, and older kids will learn more about topics they may have studied and see the fascinating ways that scientific principles can be transformed into interactive learning experiences. Start inside the institution with Search for Life Beyond Earth, which breaks down this interplanetary quest for scientists-in-training. As it turns out, Mars isn't the only place with potential for extraterrestrial life; there's Jupiter's moon Europa, Saturn's moon Titan and even places beyond our solar system. Experiment with a shifting-ice-sheet puzzle and take a close look at microbes strong enough to survive the extreme environment found on Mars. Before leaving, be sure to check out a recent addition: a Mars rover built by two North Carolina sisters, ages 13 and 11.

After exploring the museum, head outside to Rocket Park to find spacecraft displayed at the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, just 10 years into the space age. Before heading home, play a game of Rocket Park Mini Golf (open daily, March through November). In this physics-based take on the activity, families move through nine holes that demonstrate navigating past space junk, finding the correct planetary alignment for perfect putting conditions and achieving zero gravity.

Stargazing on the High Line. Photo: Liz Ligon. Courtesy, Friends of the High Line

Stargazing on the High Line
On Tuesday nights from April through October, when dusk rolls around, members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York head to the High Line with their high-powered telescopes, made available to the public. This is a great time for stargazing newbies to learn a thing or two about studying the sky, since the group is always willing to lend a helping hand to participants of all ages. The event takes place from dusk until 15 minutes before the High Line closes (10pm in the spring and 11pm in the summer) near the entrance on West 14th Street. Stargazing is weather permitting, so make sure to check the Amateur Astronomers website, call 212-206-9922 or follow @highlinenyc and @aaadotorg on Twitter for updates.

The Association also sets up in Prospect Park, Lincoln Center, Rose Hill Park, Floyd Bennett Field and Carl Schurz Park, among other locations, so check for more opportunities to stargaze.

The Rose Main Reading Room. Photo: Will Steacy

New York Public Library
The New York Public Library is naturally the perfect spot to begin learning about space, with endless free resources for fact-seeking families. A librarian can help you navigate the online databases to pinpoint magazine and newspaper issues from the height of the space race. Then, head over to the Periodicals Room to request copies of Life, National Geographic, Time and more for vivid photos you won't find in any history books. Older kids should visit the Microform Room for some heavier reading on the subject. Louise Lareau, the managing librarian at the library's Children's Center, suggests starting with copies of the New York Post published just before the first manned space shuttle launch. You'll get a glimpse of iconic history right here in New York City.