- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

WASHINGTON | Elmo the “Elmonaut” donned a spacesuit Tuesday as the star of a planetarium show that will take children on an imaginary ride into space. Big Bird even gets a chance to fly, joining cuddly Elmo and a Chinese Muppet named Hu Hu Zhu on the voyage.

“Hi, Elmo!” a crowd of 4-year-olds chorused as the Muppet reported for duty at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The popular “Sesame Street” character introduced a show that helps children ages 4 to 6 learn about astronomy. Children from the United States to China are taking part, and a Chinese Mandarin version opened last year at the Beijing Planetarium.

“This is one small step for a monster and one giant leap for monsterkind,” Elmo declared, eliciting smiles and stares from the children visiting the museum.

“Elmo the Elmonaut has experienced the thrill of supersonic speeds, the power of G-force and the nausea of zero gravity,” Elmo said through his space helmet, explaining his training in the “Monster Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

Most planetariums probably wouldn’t hold a toddler’s attention, let alone distract one from a scary dark theater. Yet creators of the show say everything changes with the magic of Elmo and his “Sesame Street” sidekicks.

In the show, “One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure,” the Muppets take a journey from Sesame Street to China and the moon. They learn how to find the Big Dipper constellation and the North Star. There’s also a sing-along of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

“There’s just not a lot of other programs out there that engage little kids without scaring them half to death in a dark room,” said Sesame Workshop President and Chief Executive Officer Gary E. Knell. “This will give them an introduction and hopefully instill in them at a very young age a love for science.”

The spacesuited Elmo popped up at the museum in front of a huge model of the Hubble Space Telescope. He said he was hoping to borrow one of the museum’s rockets for a space mission.

“Elmo the Elmonaut is reporting for duty,” he added.

“Reporting for duty?” Mr. Knell repeated.

“Sir, yes sir. Sir, yes sir,” Elmo replied.

An Elmonaut, Elmo explained, is like an astronaut but “only scarier.” Then the cuddly red Muppet gave his trademark chuckle.

The planetarium show also recently began playing at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Jersey City, N.J.’s Liberty Science Center. The creators of “Sesame Street” are hoping to make it available at other science centers and schools as well.

Initially, the show will appear once a month for free in the District and is available on request for school groups.

“If you can get this program into this place, you’ve kind of hit gold, Mr. Knell said, noting that the Smithsonian’s space museum is one of the world’s most popular museums.

The PNC Foundation is sponsoring the project along with the National Science Foundation as part of a $100 million early childhood education initiative. Later, three portable domes will take the show to elementary school gymnasiums in eight states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia.

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