National Space Centre celebrates 20 years in Leicester

Scientists, astronomers and researchers from the University of Leicester are among those celebrating two decades of the National Space Centre in Leicester.

Opened in 2001, the National Space Centre is a charity organisation setup with the mission of communicating space and interests in science. It is the UK’s largest attraction dedicated to space exploration and space science, and houses rockets, satellites, Martian surfaces and other genuine space artefacts.

The University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre played a key role in the formation of the Centre, which has so far welcomed more than 4.6 million visitors through its doors, close to the soon-to-be-completed Space Park Leicester.

The University and the National Space Centre continue to collaborate on community engagement projects, and on the bid for a new Leicestershire Institute of Technology (IoT).

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leicester, said: “The new Millennium signalled a new beginning for Leicester with the creation of the National Space Centre, the brainchild of the University of Leicester. Through partnership with Leicester City Council and others, we have created a thriving legacy for the future.  

“As Space Park Leicester takes shape alongside the National Space Centre in Pioneer Park, and we await the outcome of our bid to create an Institute of Technology, we celebrate the success of the National Space Centre on its 20th anniversary.” 

The Centre has played host to a number of high-profile visitors during its first 20 years, including Her Majesty the Queen, and members of space royalty including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. British-born astronauts Michael Foale, Helen Sharman and Tim Peake have also landed in Leicester to talk about life in space.

NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman, veteran of five Space Shuttle missions and Visiting Professor to Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, cut the ribbon at the Centre’s opening ceremony in 2001.

(L-R) Ken Pounds, Emeritus Professor of Space Physics, NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman, Visiting Professor, and Alan Wells, Emeritus Professor and former Director of Leicester’s Space Research Centre at opening of the National Space Centre in 2001.

The concept of the National Space Centre was first drawn up in 1994, and soon grew into a joint bid by the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council to the Millennium Commission as a Landmark Millennium Project for the East Midlands.

Alan Wells, Emeritus Professor and Founding Director of Leicester’s Space Research Centre, was one of the key drivers behind the project. Professor Wells said: “There have been many contributors to the success of the National Space Centre.

“Those of us involved at the beginning had numerous ideas about what outcomes might be achieved. Would it succeed as a tourist attraction? Could we provide educational resources and opportunities for young people in the City and more widely? Could the space centre and the University derive mutual benefit by linking up space research with public outreach presentation? I think we passed these tests.

“We spoke of regenerating the derelict Abbey Meadows site into a Science Park with the Centre an iconic physical presence as the first step.

“With the City Council’s business development centre at DOCK and now with Space Park Leicester, the National Space Centre has been joined by some very influential neighbours who more or less speak the same language, with similar aspirations and shared objectives. These are very satisfying manifestations of some of our more hopeful dreams when we started all this over 25 years ago.”

Anu Ojha is a Director of the National Space Centre and was appointed Honorary Professor in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy in 2016. Professor Ojha added: “The University of Leicester’s expertise and reputation in space science is world-class.

"From ‘looking out there’ (astronomy), ‘going out there’ (exploration) to ‘looking back here’ (space applications for the benefit of life on Earth), space science has captivated the public’s imagination and driven new opportunities for us as a society.

“The National Space Centre’s ongoing commitment to telling the story of space for everyone has only been possible thanks to the 60 years of research, innovation and discovery in these fields, led by the University.”

The National Space Centre is a key partner in a University of Leicester-led consortium bidding to create £13m ‘skills factory’ in Leicestershire to revitalise the region’s economy.

The Leicester and Leicestershire Institute of Technology in Space, Digital, Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering aims to help plug the skills gap in the region, supporting the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Professor Sarah Davies, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Leicester, said: “All of us at the University of Leicester wish to congratulate the team at the National Space Centre for 20 fantastic years in Leicester.

“We are immensely proud of our long-standing links to the Centre, which plays a pivotal role in inspiring the next generation of scientists, astronomers and engineers.

“We look forward to continuing this work in the years to come on exciting projects such as the Institute of Technology and through collaborations with the Centre that engage our students and the wider community.”

The National Space Centre is currently open on Saturdays and Sundays in Leicestershire school term and from Monday to Sunday during Leicestershire school holiday periods.

Booking in advance is essential (including Annual Pass and Gift Voucher holders). Go to the National Space Centre website to plan your visit.