Since 1994, the Cosmodome has attracted visitors from around the globe. Its sprawling complex is located on the Laurentian Autoroute, in the heart of downtown Laval. Welcoming its guests is an impressive replica of the Ariane 4 rocket towering on the front lawn. The Cosmodome also houses Space Camp Canada. It is the one and only museum in Canada dedicated completely to astronautics and space exploration.

“It’s an institution that is here to stay and it plays an important role in the community. That’s why we are still around after 20 years,” states General Manager Marc De Blois.

It doesn’t take long for visitors to become awestruck upon entering the Cosmodome through its great glass doors. The space is vast, the ceilings are high and the lighting is reminiscent of outer space. It is like being transported into the abyss of the universe.

Vincent Noel is a fifth grade physical education teacher from the Quebec City region. He recently accompanied his students for three days of camp.

“It’s an exceptional and different experience,” he says. “The environment is incredible. The kids are amazed just being in the building. There are so many things to look at, and there is information everywhere.”

The main floor houses a museum exploring the solar system and recounting the history of space travel.

An atrium has a view of the floor below, where six space simulators for Space Camp Canada are lodged. On busy days, dozens of campers can be seen donning helmets and attempting to use a Canadarm, navigating in a zero gravity simulated environment or even sitting in a control tower guiding a space shuttle full of astronauts.

Overnight camps, lasting either three or six days, give older children access to dormitories reminiscent of those found in the International Space Station. There are 268 guest beds on the Cosmodome’s upper floors. Meals are provided in the large cafeteria. The Space Camp at the Cosmodome receives science buffs from Europe, Asia, the United States, India, and across Canada.

The boarding platform leading to three interactive space missions is adjacent to the permanent exhibit. Through the 60-minute missions, guests experience the challenges of space explorers and discover breathtaking horizons in a multimedia world. The Outer Limits of the Cosmos is an invitation to discover the magnitude of the solar system with the help of a space probe. The Impossible Dream is a look into the history of space exploration and various technological breakthroughs. The Red Planet mission delves into the challenges facing those who will attempt to reach the planet Mars.

Recent revamping

The addition of the three virtual missions was part of the Cosmodome’s recent museum overhaul. In fact, the entire museum experience was redeveloped during a project launched back in 2009 and completed at the end of 2011. It cost over $10 million.

In early 2014, a new and reorganized administrative staff took charge and revamped the museum’s educational programs, too. The staff works toward keeping the Cosmodome’s offerings up-to-date and getting more people through the doors.

Marie-Michèle Limoges is the science and education director at the Cosmodome since late 2014. With a PhD in astrophysics, and years of experience as a former animator at the Cosmodome, Limoges fits right in. Besides revamping the scientific content and training animators, Limoges is expanding the Yuri Gagarin Information Centre. This library is located within the Cosmodome; it includes an impressive collection of exclusive documents from sources like NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and copious science magazines.

Limoges explains: “Eventually, students and teachers will be able to consult the documents on site for research purposes. A staff member will guide them. This program should be in place as of January or February of 2016.”

“It will help students realize that Google is great, but that there is lots of information they are missing out on. They’ll be able to physically research documents in the Yuri Gagarin Centre,” she says.

The modernization of the museum has proven beneficial so far. Between 2012 and 2013, the Cosmodome had a five per cent increase in visitors. In 2014, 135,000 people walked through the museum doors, hitting projected numbers.

“The Cosmodome is getting more traffic. Our numbers have increased by about 10 per cent so far in 2015,” says Business Development Manager Stépahnie Girard-Beaudry.

Yet the Cosmodome’s mission to stimulate the population’s interest in space exploration and science has remained the same over the last two decades.

According to De Blois and his colleagues, the Cosmodome is all about “democratizing” space exploration by making it accessible to everyone.

Something for everyone

The new administrative team has been working at developing innovative programs for age groups that were previously overlooked. In addition, all the programs are offered in English and French. Until recently, the Cosmodome focused mainly on children aged nine to 15.

“We now have activities for all age groups lasting different lengths of time,” says Administrative Services Manager Julie Provençal. “Our programs can last anywhere from two hours to six days.”

Provençal specifies that the museum now caters to anyone aged three and up, including adults and seniors.

“We want to show people that they can come more than once. They won’t necessarily do the same activity each time,” she adds.

As of 2014, the Cosmodome hosts events geared toward preschoolers for a week during autumn. Space themed activities include story-time, treasure hunts and free play.

“It’s a chance for little ones to be introduced to science and to our universe here at the Cosmodome,” says Provençal.

During summer, weeklong day camps are available for kids ages five to 13. The focus is on living a healthy lifestyle and outer space.

Space Camp Canada, which is housed within the Cosmodome, also has camps. These sleepover camps are for children between nine and 15. The Atlantis camp lasts three days while the Endeavor lasts six days. Each offers the opportunity to try NASA simulators and reenact a shuttle launch. Astronautics workshops, including hands-on experiments, are also part of the package.

A sleepover camp may be available for families “in the near future”, according to Provençal. The details are being ironed out.

For now, moms and dads wanting to experience the Cosmodome with their kids can register for the Moon Project. Lasting three hours, the experience includes the use of one NASA simulator, a space shuttle visit, a guided museum tour and admission to one of the Cosmodome’s interactive missions. Families who are less adventurous can simply visit the Cosmodome’s museum or participate in an interactive mission without a reservation any time during operating hours.

Parents can also reserve an animator and a room at the Cosmodome for birthday parties. Numerous packages are available for kids five and up. Corporations looking to hone their employees’ team building skills can do so at the Cosmodome. Groups of colleagues can work together on a space shuttle launch. A second option is collaborating on an egg-o-naut project. Teams must design and build a space capsule sturdy enough for the egg within it to survive a three-story drop.

Corporations can also rent the Cosmodome for business meetings, seminars, conferences or cocktail receptions.

Groups of 15 seniors or more are also welcome to register for activities. The Space Break Program includes an interactive mission about landing on the moon, a guided museum tour and the egg-o-naut challenge. Coffee and cookies are served during the challenge, making the experience a little more leisurely.

A beacon in Laval

De Blois is proud of the Cosmodome’s offerings. He believes the museum is a big draw in Laval, boosting recreotourism on the North Shore.

“We are like a beacon in the city. We attract a lot of visitors to this area,” he says. “People coming to the Cosmodome can find seven or eight other attractions within a one kilometre radius.”

He admits this proximity to other tourist attractions is great for all businesses in the Centropolis. These include SkyVenture, Maeva Surf, Clip’N Climb and Putting Edge. A large movie theatre and countless restaurants top the list as well.

“We rely on these neighbouring attractions to get us more foot traffic,” notes De Blois.

De Blois recently revealed that many of these businesses will participate in a trade show this November at the Centropolis. The goal is to promote local tourism, also known as staycations.

“We want the people of Laval and Montreal to know that you can come to the area, stay at a local hotel and have three incredible days filled with activities,” explains De Blois.

The Cosmodome continually promotes its services through dozens of partnerships across Montreal and the North Shore. Staff members organize activities in collaboration with local hospitals, schools, corporations, sports facilities and more.

“We are very present in the community,” says Girard-Beaudry. “We are present at family festivals, community festivals and even in libraries. This allows us to reach out to the public and have them discover what we have to offer.”

Giving Back

Charity and Special Project Manager, Mélanie Taillon, heads the Cosmodome’s foundation. The foundation contributes to organizations and individuals that would otherwise be unable to experience what the Cosmodome has to offer. She believes being present in the community also means giving back to those in need.

“We make it possible for children facing adversity to come and enjoy the programs we have,” says Taillon.

Some initiatives include free workshops and toys for patients staying at Sainte-Justine Hospital. The foundation also cooperated with the Dr. Julien Foundation. The initiative allowed underprivileged children to be transported to and from the Cosmodome for a day of science and fun at no cost to their families.

Last October, a Star Wars themed evening to benefit the Cosmodome’s foundation was a great success. In all, the foundation donated $38,000 to the community last year, and it hopes to increase that figure this year. A second fundraiser is planned for November. The theme for this year’s cocktail party will be the July 1969 moon landing. Many corporate sponsors are expected to attend.

Women in science

The Cosmodome’s philanthropic work embraces more than just charity. Its staff also strives to promote gender equality in the field of science.

According to a recent Statistics Canada study, women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the computer sciences fields.

The Cosmodome encourages students, both male and female, to pursue careers in astronautics. Quebec is home to one of the world’s largest aerospace clusters. Many of these companies contribute greatly to space exploration. Thus, several conferences about careers in aerospace are held at the Cosmodome.

Through these various activities and conferences, Limoges is optimistic the Cosmodome can inspire girls to follow in her footsteps.

“In an effort to encourage women to pursue those careers, we recently invited two female helicopter pilots to talk about their work and inspire young women,” says Limoges.

It is interesting to note that 58 different women have flown into space, including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists and foreign nationals.

Limoges and her colleagues agree that leading by example is best. There are an equal number of male and female animators at the Cosmodome. As for the administrative staff, most of the employees are female.

Limoges points out: “Even on our website, we make sure we don’t just show pictures of little boys playing in our museum. We show girls too.”

The future

De Blois claims this is part of what makes the Cosmodome special.

“We are a unique institution in Canada. We are an institution that is constantly evolving and adapting to the new trends. We will continue to strive to meet the needs of our clients, parents and children.”

De Blois admits none of the Cosmodome’s achievements over the last two decades would have been possible without support from the city: “The Cosmodome is celebrating 20 years because it is in Laval and has financial support from the city of Laval. The Cosmodome could not exist without this support.”

Laval will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Fittingly, festivities will be held at the Cosmodome.

De Blois and his team are currently searching for a corporate partner to finance upcoming projects.

De Blois is optimistic: “The best is yet to come.”