A Taste of Space at ESA’s Space Expo
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Expo visitor center in Noordwijk is an impressive sight. There’s no comparison to the Kennedy Space Center or Johnson Space Center – both in America – but Space Expo is a great activity for families. The visitor center is co-located with ESA’s facility, nestled up against North Sea dunes. Best reached by car, Space Expo is a Museumkaart member making it a very affordable day-trip from anywhere in the Netherlands. I’d only rent a car to visit if you were truly a space nut or if you combined Space Expo with a lovely visit to the dunes, North Sea beach or another museum.
Space Expo is a warehouse of sorts, housing a permanent collection of space memorabilia as well as rotating exhibitions. When I visited in autumn 2017, there was a charming exhibit showing off the sights, smells and tastes of space flight. This included clothing, food tubes and more – all things you could touch and smell. There are several hands-on items like computer-aided displays and things kids can touch (meteorites, models and games). There is even a (low-ish budget) replica space station you can walk through. Space Expo has childrens programming which includes classes and birthday parties. Call ahead for information and days.
There is a “Space Train” advertised on the Space Expo’s website. The 75-minute tour of ESA’s technical center is aboard a spaceship-shaped trolley. The Space Train is an extra cost (6 EUR, not covered by the Museumkaart) and only goes on weekends and during the week during Dutch school holidays. There are three daily departures: 10:30, 13:30 and 15:00. Needless to say, it took me a few months with the Space Expo on my radar before I could manage to visit on one of these days during one of those times. I even called ahead to confirm that the Space Train was touring on my chosen day to visit. Unfortunately, when I arrived at 10:00, I was told that the only English tour of the day would be the 13:30 departure. There is a cafe at Space Expo serving very limited snack options, but I just could not stick around 3.5 hours to wait for the Space Train. In case you can’t catch the train, know that you probably aren’t missing much. I asked about the tour route and got a few conflicting stories – but none of them seemed awe-inspiring like the tours at Kennedy or Johnson.
Even without the Space Train experience, I felt that Space Expo was worth a 1.5-2 hour visit. It was great to see the ESA projects and read about the European perspective on space exploration.
Space Expo quite literally borders the North Sea dunes so plan your visit to coincide with nice weather. Enjoy a walk or run through the dunes just south of Katwijk aan Zee (8-minute drive from Space Expo). Stay on the marked trails as the dunes in the Netherlands are generally off-limits. The dunes provide a vital protection against the sea and erosion from cutting trails can impact not only the local ecosystem but also the nation’s protection from storm surge. Sounds heavy, I know.
You can also combine Space Expo with Corpus, a Museumkaart museum about the human body. Corpus makes sense to combine here because both require a car to reach and are quite close (9 km apart). Keep in mind that Corpus recommends child visitors be 8 years or over, but children 6 and older can visit. We have not visited yet but hear great reviews from friends who have gone.
Regardless of how you craft your visit to Space Expo, think about the ESA astronauts who might be orbiting overhead and certainly all the satellites and exploration missions high above.