ESTEC Open Day 2012

Those of you who follow me on twitter already know, but for those who don't: on 7 October I visited ESTEC, the European Space Research & Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands. Needless to say, it was incredible. Which is why I will write a little more about the trip in this post.

I started off from Dubrovnik on Friday night, taking the bus to Zagreb (which is a 9 hours long trip), and then the plane to Schiphol, Amsterdam. From there I took the train for Leiden, a beautiful city some half an hour away from Amsterdam, where I stayed with my great host Erik whom I met via CouchSurfing. Leiden is really great, peaceful and calm, and I enjoyed walking its streets every single day. There are some great museums there, of which I visited two: Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Museum Volkenkunde.
Naturalis is beautiful, with a huge number of animal and plant species to see, and a great mineralogy collection (there's a lot of other stuff too, of course). "In terms of collection size, Naturalis Biodiversity Center is one of the top five natural history museums in the world," says their webpage. I spent almost three hours there, and I could have stayed for at least three hours more had I not got tired. This is definitely one of the best museums I've ever visited, and I can recommend it to anyone who visits Leiden, or even Amsterdam. Museum Volkenkunde is as good as Naturalis, but covers a completely different topic - ethnology. With 175 years of age, it is one of the oldest ethnological museums in the world. It has excellent exhibitions on different parts of the world with so many interesting things and great explanations thereof (200,000 objects and 500,000 audiovisual sources), and there is currently an exhibition on Chinese Terracotta Warriors!

However, as fun and impressive as these places have been, they completely fade away when compared to the real reason I undertook such a big trip: ESTEC Open Day. For the first time since 1993, the European Space Research & Technology Centre, ESA's largest establishment and the center of space activities in Europe, opened its doors to general public.

I arrived there with the first group, at 1000 AM on that cold northern Sunday. As I watched the ESA flag wave on the wind, the pale blue morning sky as its background, I felt such awe as I rarely do. There I was, at the gates of the biggest space center in the whole of Europe! Alone among many, I entered the complex to spend almost five hours walking, watching, reading and learning. And sighing with delight, a lot. From the history of European space program, scaled models of satellites, shuttles and rockets, objects flown to space, object fallen from space, to the newest achievements in space technology, a walk through halls and corridors of ESTEC was filled with awe-striking imagery. I stood in front of a 1:4 scaled Mars Express, 1:10 scaled Planck telescope, 1:4 scaled GOCE; I watched holograms of rotating spacecraft, of rotating Earth suspended in nothingness; I touched with my bare hand the Hubble Space Telescope's Secondary Deployment Mechanism which deployed one of the booms that held solar array wings in place; I took a photo of my reflection on a solar panel flown on Hubble Space Telescope, which provided it with energy for more than 8 years.
The leftmost reflection is me!
I've seen ultra-thin materials for solar sails, micrometeoroid impact craters on Hubble's solar arrays, 3D printed building blocks made of lunar regolith simulant; walked through the research area where spacecraft elements are being built and tested; seen real-size mock-ups of Russian Service Module Zvezda, Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator, ISS module Columbus...
After all of this I was lucky enough to see the Dutch physician and ESA astronaut André Kuipers (whom you can remember from ISS Expeditions 30 and 31) giving a speech to a huge audience. This was a gorgeous moment for me, as I followed the progress of these missions with great interest. The problem with the speech was that it was given in Dutch, of which I can barely understand every fifth word, but since there was a video presentation in the background, and because of how much I know about André's mission, I was able to follow the speech relatively well. I was surprised it wasn't in English, though, considering how many foreigners there were at ESTEC that day. But, hey, I can't complain - I've seen one of my favorite astronauts!
André Kuipers on stage.
After buying some souvenirs from ESTEC, I finally left the complex, and went to visit Space Expo, Europe’s first permanent space exhibition, where I've seen a real-size mock-up of Moon landing, walked through the Zvezda module, seen myself in infra-red light, touched a 4,5 billion year old meteorite...
Some highlights.
To wrap things up, I'm just going to say that this was absolutely the greatest moment of my entire life (so far). It is too hard to put all of these feelings and impressions in words, and these sentences you read may not sound as impressive as I hoped while writing them. But, trust my word, events like these are an absolute must-see for every space enthusiast and science lover. If you ever get a chance to visit ESTEC, or any other space facility wherever, dear Darwin don't let anyone stop you.

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