Leicester's space museum enters final countdown

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"Leicester – we have a problem". It was press day for the new National Space Centre and, inside Nicholas Grimshaw's startling new building, it was clear that the staff were still some way from "all systems go".

As teams of test-pilot children gave the interactive exhibits their first taste of destruction testing, builders were working on the installations while glass cases stood empty, waiting for some of the £11m-worth of space artefacts promised for the museum.

In the building's landmark Rocket Tower, two abseilers dangled 40 metres above the café floor, giving the Blue Streak missile a quick going-over with Mr Sheen. Countdown is continuing to a public opening on 30 June, but they will be working overtime on the launchpad until then.

On paper, Grimshaw's structure uses the idiom of cutting edge technology and 21st century ecological rectitude. The ribcage of the Rocket Tower is made from welded tubular girders and clad with an inflated skin of ethyl-tetrafluoroethelene – a bubble wrap of transparent polymer which costs and weighs much less than glass.

On the eye, though, this architectural wichetty grub talks a different language – that of Mekons and invasive Bodysnatchers. If this is the future, then it is an old-fashioned one – already familiar to older visitors from the curvaceous cityscapes of the Dan Dare comic strip and wilder Hollywood fantasies.

The Rocket Tower is half biomorphic cocoon pod – the kind of thing that eventually cracks open to reveal a zombified clone of the local sheriff – and half Spaceport control module. The surroundings are considerably less otherworldly in their associations.

Just across the way lies the Victorian Abbey Mills pumping station, currently Leicester's science museum, and the rectangular space centre itself sits in an old sewage treatment tank. Still, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, all of us are sitting in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. And from the outside, at least, the Space Centre promises intergalactic transportation to its visitors.

Once inside, you come down to earth with a bump, back to the terrestrial realities of merchandising and educational resource. A veteran Soyuz capsule, looking distinctly sub-orbital after years of neglect in a Georgian car-park, competes for the new arrival's attention with a set of sandwich racks and an ice-cream cooler. Beyond lie the themed galleries.

There is a life-sized mock-up of a section from the International Space Station and the country's second-largest planetarium, with a light show about the universe called Big.

But there is something nervous about the way these exhibits present the facts – an over-anxious sprightliness which leaves you hoping that teachers will be able to clarify the difference between packaging and contents. They will need their wits about them if they are to explain why the model of Mercury has a cheeky face and why Saturn is presented lounging in a bath-tub, with a blue rubber duck.

In the section devoted to cosmology, meanwhile, a video devoted to the end of the universe offers you a choice between Islamic theories ("a kind wind will come and take the souls of those who are righteous") and those of an off-licence manager clutching a large glass of red wine ("then we'll get a little Mekon, riding on an upside-down iron").

"Can you spot the scientific view among so many wild and colourful ideas?" asks a label, with careful ecumenism.

Anyone sceptical about Leicester's claim to be the natural British home for space exploration is in for a surprise, though. The vintage Blue Streak missile may be redolent of a fizzled enterprise, with its Wallace and Gromit aesthetics, but the city has made a real contribution at a smaller scale.

In every year since 1967, the brochure boasts, a locally built item has made it out of earth orbit – after hitching lifts on American rockets. What is more, the Space Centre will eventually contain a Research Unit run by Leicester University, where visitors will watch probes being built. These include Beagle 2, a Mars explorer due in two years' time.

Who could deny that the British space programme will have come of age when the thrilling words rasp across the intercom: "Leicester – the Beagle has landed."