Fans, friends, alumni trying to save Space Center

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 6:05 p.m. MST

A group of 11-year-old boys sit at their stations during a mission in the Phoenix simulator at the Christa McAuliffe Space Center in Pleasant Grove.

Stuart Johnson, Stuart Johnson/Deseret News

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PLEASANT GROVE — It came as a shock, almost as if the Romulans of Star Trek had fired a heat-seeking missile at The Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center here.

The popular simulation program designed to teach astronomy and social science through innovative simulated space missions could not continue, at least not in the building and at the level it's been operating.

But Alpine School District spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley says the district is not shutting the venue down. She says the "Save the Space Center" campaign is a well-meant effort that's misnamed.

In fact, Bromley said, a committee comprised of students, patrons, district officials and Space Center founder/director Victor Williamson, is hard at work trying to find a new place for the center.

"In reality, the space center is going to continue but not in the current facility," Bromley said. "It's a great program. It's something the school board and administration sees as valuable."

The program has attracted regional and national attention since its inception in 1990 by Williamson, using Star Trek footage and student manpower.

During a routine inspection in August of the facility at Central Elementary that has entertained and educated more than 310,000 visitors over the past 22 years, the state fire marshal determined that adjustments needed to be made to meet fire safety and ADA standards.

The estimated bill to provide adequate escape routes and properly wire the space center would reach at least $700,000.

Bromley said it doesn't make sense to keep the center in Central Elementary as the school (originally built in 1893) is scheduled to be rebuilt in the near future anyway.

"We do own property, some right across the street, that was purchased with the idea of building a freestanding space center there," Bromley said.

However, whatever decisions are made must be made with safety as the priority and the taxpayer dollars in mind, she said.

Bromley said the current plan is to reopen portions of the center, including the original starship Magellan, the shuttlecraft Galileo and battleship Phoenix simulators, in mid-January or early February for day use and limited field trips.

The Odyssey and Voyager simulators remain shut down until funds allow for a relocation and/or rebuild of the 4,000-square-foot facility added on to the school.

Williamson said the situation could turn into something positive as it pushes discussion about building a new space center forward.

"This is almost a blessing in disguise," he said, noting that participants in the center's missions were never at risk or in physical danger.

The center passed its safety inspections every year but it was now time to upgrade and renovate.

"The good thing now is, it's always been me (promoting the space center). Now there will be a board, so it's going to live on past its founder," Williamson said.

He said a new building large enough to support those within Alpine School District who want to participate in the programs as well as those requests that come from outside the district will cost between $5-$10 million.

"We'll need a lot more than 4,000 square feet," Williamson explained. "We'll need our own cafeteria, restrooms, classroom space in addition to the simulators."

Williamson said with the renewed emphasis in education on science, engineering and math, it should be possible to persuade state legislators and the governor to put money toward the center.

Hayden Morrey, 12, of Taylorsville, earned his first Boy Scout merit badge through visits to the space center.

He found the experience "awesome" and is disappointed to hear that the center won't be offering the space camps and overnight adventures he's been planning to attend.

"I'm kind of upset about it," Morrey said. "I really liked the cool technology."

"A lot of kids are broken-hearted right now," Williamson said, "but they are really excited to be getting at least the three ships back and maybe more.

"We're not in crisis mode yet."

The committee will present its recommendation to the Alpine School District Board of Education at its first meeting in February.

For updates on the Space Center, visit the Save the Space Center website and Alpine School District's website.

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@desnews.com

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