A northern Nevada museum is launching a new exhibit about rockets and the role area residents have played in space exploration.
The Sparks in Space exhibit at the Sparks Heritage Museum was developed with the help of the Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada and a group of Sparks High School astronomy students.
It includes information on rocket testing in Sparks, animal "pioneers" sent into orbit and the next generation in space exploration.
Dick Dreiling, a museum volunteer and board member who dug up information for the From Railroads to Rockets portion of the exhibit, said he found some little-known facts about rocket testing that once took place in the Spanish Springs area.
He said few people realize that Rocketdyne owned 126,000 acres in what is now Spanish Springs, and that it tested rocket engines used in the Apollo and Gemini programs at the Nevada Field Laboratory until the late 1960s.
"The actual flight engines were tested there," Dreiling said. "Thousands of them."
Museum visitors are able to explore space at iPad kiosks and can try their hand at piloting and landing a spacecraft on the moon using a Return to Camelot simulator purchased by the Reno Air Racing Association.
The Animals in Space exhibit contains information and photos documenting the work of local veterinarian Richard Simmonds, who spent more than six years of his Air Force career managing animal testing components of NASA's lunar quarantine program and a joint space biology program with the Soviet Union.
Simmonds serves on the board of directors of the Sparks High School-based Challenger Learning Center and volunteers at the museum.
Visitors will see a prototype of a "mouse hotel" that Simmonds helped develop to send rodents from Nevada to space to determine whether cosmic rays were harming astronauts.
"They sent the little pocket mouse, which is found in Nevada, because it requires very little water to survive," Dreiling said.
Simmonds also was involved with a laboratory where moon dust was tested for toxins, and with experiments to send fish into space to see how they would swim in a weightless environment and a spider to see if it would be able to spin a web, Dreiling said.
The Next Generation exhibit shows current and future endeavors in space, including the work of Mars exploration researcher Wendy Calvin.
Calvin is also a Challenger Learning Center board member, and museum executive Anthea Humphreys said she helps Sparks High School "to develop the next generation of explorers."
The Sparks Heritage Museum is at 814 Victorian Ave. and is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults. Admission is free for children age 12 and younger, and for active military members and their families.
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