Exploring Mars in your own space pod is now possible with the touch of a button and it’s just one of many exhibits you’ll find only at the new Connecticut Science Center. The facility opened Friday and both children, as well as adults wandered its 10 galleries and 150 hands-on exhibits.

Nearly a decade in the making, the building with its magic carpet roof designed by Cesar Pelli of New Haven, has changed the skyline of downtown Hartford, but will it be able to change anything else?

Much of the attention Friday was focused on the science center becoming New England’s largest and newest tourist attraction, which features hundreds of exhibits with gallery scientists able to help visitors experience the marvels of science.

But it’s also one of the last of the Six Pillars of Progress plan and has been touted as a catalyst for economic development in the Capitol city.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who was given the task of coming up with a report on the Six Pillars as lieutenant governor to then Gov. John G. Rowland, said the blueprints for the site where the science center now sits once said, “Attraction.”

“It’s almost like watching proud parents at a graduation,” Rell said as she looked around Science Alley at all the people who helped make Friday’s opening possible.

Just to the right of the science center is the Marriott Hotel and the Connecticut Convention Center. The science center is one of the last pieces of the $775 million state economic development project known as Adriaen’s Landing. The Front Street mixed-use development is still under construction

When asked if former Gov. Rowland deserved any credit for making this day possible, Rell said she remembers when Rowland asked her to chair the Six Pillars committee.

“I remember very vividly his comment to me, ‘Do not give us a report that will sit on a shelf somewhere. We want good concrete things that we can do in this city,’” Rell recalled Friday. She said when she was finished with the report she handed it to him and said: “It’s expensive, but it’s going to turn the city of Hartford around.”

However, Rell who participated in the robot-assisted ribbon cutting ceremony has already proposed eliminating the state’s contribution to the science center for the next two years.

“It’s a two-year phase we have to go through. Everybody’s going to have to take a hit this year,” Rell said.

Rell, a Republican, and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly have yet to agree on a state budget for the next two years. Rell’s most recent proposal to cut spending eliminates all funding for state museums and attractions, like the science center, as the state stares down an estimated $8.7 billion deficit for the next two years.

“The state can subsidize, but eventually most everything is going to have to operate on its own,” Rell said referring to the nonprofit status of many of the city’s cultural and art organizations.

Matt Fleury, president and CEO of the Connecticut Science Center, said that private donors have given $42 million to help open the $162 million center.

He said even in difficult times there are signs of hope. “We are more than surviving thank you very much.”

“Here in the land of steady habits and cautious optimists we’ve been accused occasionally of looking past our own achievements. In truth our new science center is but another star in an enviable constellation of community treasures,” Fleury said. “We are here to lift hopes, lift aspirations, and lift dreams.”

How big can those dreams be?

“Science and technology are the engine that power our future and the science center puts the keys in that engine,” Rell said Friday as she addressed the crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting.

The science center houses a 200-seat 3D movie theater and 10 galleries. On the fourth floor, Energy City demonstrates ways to combat climate change by utilizing alternative energy technology, and below that Sports Lab explores health benefits of sports as well as biomechanics.

The goal of the center is to make science accessible to people, Jason Archer, gallery program manager, said.

“See it, touch it, feel it, humanize it,” Archer said. “We try to take the exhibits to the next level, in terms of involvement and even partnership.”

Archer is just one of the gallery scientists. There are gallery scientists all over the center, ready to demonstrate different experiments.

At the River of Life exhibit, TJ McKenna examined a sample of river life and projected the image onto a large screen. Aside from watching tiny shrimps squirm, viewers can also test the water quality of the Connecticut River. Archer said this gallery was equipped with the latest technology for viewing small organisms.

Right next-door, as part of Energy City, there is an igloo-shaped 4D theater where a talking sheep explains climate change. The “fourth dimension” takes shape when simulated rain falls and objects pop out.

Below Energy City, another exhibit allows visitors to practice relaxation. Mind Ball is a game where two people duke it out to be the calmest player. A machine reads their brain waves and projects the findings on a large screen.

Not only are the exhibits equipped with state-of-the-art technology, the building itself is the pinnacle of modern invention. Solar panels already help generate some of the power to the building and in the future it plans on being the first museum in the country to use a hydrogen fuel cell to help provide a majority of its power. When the fuel cell is up and running the center expects to return 75 percent of its electricity back to the grid when it closes at night.

General admission is $16 for adults and $13 for children. Season passes and memberships are also offered. For more information, visit the Connecticut Science Center Web site.

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June 12, 2009