- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Elmo the “Elmonaut” donned a space suit Tuesday as the Muppet star of a planetarium show that will take children on an imaginary ride into space. And 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-old tots chorused as the Muppet reported for duty at Washington’s famed National Air and Space Museum.

The popular “Sesame Street” character introduced a show that helps children ages 4 to 6 learn about astronomy. And children from the U.S. to China are taking part; there’s even a Chinese Mandarin version of the show that 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 on Tuesday.

“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 them from the scary, dark theaters. But creators of the show say everything changes with the magic of Elmo and the other “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-a-long 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 CEO Gary Knell. “This will give them an introduction and hopefully instill in them at a very young age a love for science.”

Wearing a space suit, 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?” said Knell.

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

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

The planetarium show also recently began playing at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and New Jersey’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 Washington and is available on request for school groups.

Noting that the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum is one of the world’s most popular museums, Knell said, “if you can get this program into this place, you’ve kind of hit gold.”

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

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