It’s been barely a year since NASA called an end to its nearly three-decade-long space shuttle program, and nearly four months since the space shuttle Discovery cruised over Washington en route to its final resting place at the National Air and Space Museum.

For many, the sidelining of the shuttle program — a product of budget cutbacks — marked the end of an era, standing in sharp contrast to the national popularity space exploration witnessed during the Kennedy-era Space Race.

But at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium in Northwest, ranger Tony Linforth, 43, works to ensure that an interest in space continues, tailoring demonstrations to appeal to audiences young and old.

“I want to inspire,” says Linforth as he warms up a projector, casting a soft green light over the planetarium’s plush seating. “Visually, I like to invite people in. As they come in here, this is a striking reminder that, boy, you’re in for something special.”

And, Linforth adds, there is plenty that makes Rock Creek’s planetarium special. A modest building tucked away in nearly 12 miles of forest, the planetarium is the only one in the National Park foundation, according to the National Park Service’s Web site. The center offers visitors a natural, serene setting unlike what’s offered at Washington’s only other planetarium, at the Air and Space Museum.

But it’s the demonstrations that draw the biggest crowds, which in a single weekend can number several dozen. Throughout the week, Linforth and another ranger on duty offer free educational programs to the public. Manning a digital projector, the rangers guide audiences through 45-minute video presentations where planets, stars and galaxies are projected on the rotunda ceiling. The simulation also allows rangers to zoom in on planets, revealing icy cliffs, rocky canyons and colorful atmospheres.

Lifting off from a nighttime screenshot of Rock Creek Park, Linforth calls out moons and planets as we swoop past. It’s only part of what he calls “the awe factor” of the planetarium. “I can blast off and go to a spot above the moon,” says Linforth of the computer simulation’s features. “That is basically some wild stuff.”

The presentations are especially popular with schoolchildren and campers, Linforth says. And even though an older demographic might visit to hone their knowledge of space, younger audience members are among those most heavily invested in the program, often asking questions and making comments during shows.

Linforth says he isn’t worried about the future of space exploration. The young, dedicated group of aspiring astronomers he sees every week will ensure that it continues.

“These kids, when they leave with the big smile on their face — the big grin — I feel like then I’ve inspired the next generation,” he says. “At least the fire will continue to be lit, and someday we’ll get back there. We’ll keep going. I feel we’re destined to.”

As Linforth fine-tunes the projector, a line begins to form at the planetarium doors. “This is like a little best-kept secret,” Susan Morse says during the wait. “I had no idea this was even here.” Morse, 69, of Silver Spring, said she had been looking for an activity to do with her 9-year-old grandson, Ethan. Both are first-time visitors.

“I’ve been wanting to look at different types of galaxies,” says Ethan, who adds that he hopes to be an astronomer one day.

“And I want to be the grandmother of the astronomer,” Susan says with a laugh.

“We’re on an adventure! You know?” says Abigail Vizcarra-Perez, 32, visiting the planetarium for the first time with her two housemates. Although they live only minutes from the Air and Space Museum, Vizcarra-Perez says Rock Creek’s free program and natural setting drew them there.

“You can get out of the city, there are trees and it’s quiet,” she says, taking a seat at an old picnic site. “It’s nice out here.” A teacher at a bilingual school in the District, Vizcarra-Perez says she’d consider returning with her students, who could make use of the center’s exhibits, which include Spanish translations. “It really sends the message that nature is for you,” she says.

Soon, the planetarium doors open and visitors take their seats. Linforth welcomes the crowd before asking them to join him in a countdown. In seconds, he’s flying past the moon, closing in on Jupiter.

“We have a need for scientists. We have a need for heroes,” Linforth announces as the program comes to a close. “Are there any of those heroes here in this room?” In the glow of the projector, Ethan quickly surveys the room and raises his hand.

The Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium is located at 5200 Glover Rd. NW. Programs run on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For information, go to nps.gov/rocr/planyourvisit/nature
center.htm.