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Nicholas Grimshaw's giant leap for Leicester. . .

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It is now 86 days and counting until Leicester presses the button marked 'Ignition' on its Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners-designed, rocket-filled National Space Centre.

The architect is putting the finishing touches to the £81.5 million project - a main exhibition space and annexed, ETFE-clad rocket tower - before it opens on June 30.

The competition-winning scheme is a landmark Millennium project for the East Midlands, backed with £28 million of National Lottery funds. It combines exhibition areas and an education and research centre for Leicester University, along with a Challenger Learning Centre for schoolchildren - a simulation of a space station (AJ 11.5.00). This will be transported from its temporary home next to the university campus, where it opened in October 1999.

The centre is being built on a brownfield site on the banks of the River Soar to the north of the city in an area called Abbey Meadows, which is in need of regeneration.The 7,360m 2scheme occupies a former storm-water tank and is dominated by the 42m rocket tower, accessible via a mast climbing lift on the mezzanine of the main building.The tower showcases exhibits - such as the Blue Streak F16 and Thor Abel rockets - and features a superstructure made from welded tubular girders and supported by a network of curved, circular, hollow section steel beams.

The architect has returned to the ETFE cladding it favoured on the Eden project, using triple-layered panels of the material, inflated to create pillows tailored to the geometry of the frame.They were manufactured by Skyspan International.

Grimshaws believes the material is highly appropriate to the Space Centre as, like much space exploration equipment, it is strong but incredibly lightweight; it is less than 1 per cent of the dead weight of equivalent glass and has a fraction of that material's embodied energy. Grimshaws adds that its use also pushed down costs at the building stage and cut the overall weight of the structure.

The entire project was to be called the National Space Science Centre, but the 'Science'part of the name was dropped because the project's backers felt it would put off the family market it is hoping to attract.

Marketing manager Jo Higgins hopes the project will meet its 'realistic'but relatively conservative 275,000 visitors per year target (150,000 in the first six months).

It is hoped the centre will follow in the footsteps of other successful Lottery-backed centres such as Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, rather than the high-profile 'failures'such as the Life Force Centre in Bradford, Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music and the Millennium Dome.

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