City anticipates better year for space center

DOWNEY - After a slow first year of operation, the Columbia Memorial Space Center is finally ready to takeoff.At least that's what city officials anticipate will happen as the nearly 16-month-old learning facility prepares to launch new hands-on exhibits, establish diverse after-school programs and initiate corporate fundraising strategies later this year. "We're definitely in full gear," said Scott Pomrehn, executive director of the nearly 20,000-square-foot space center. "Our goal is to be at capacity and we believe it's very attainable." In a city report released last month, Pomrehn said despite a slow start last year, the center's total attendance exceeded more than 14,400 and, currently, shows signs of growth. "We're already booked most of February and the entire month of March," said Pomrehn. "Field trips have become weekly occurrences at the center with 103 groups of ten or more individuals visiting the center in 2010. As of January...25 field trips have been booked for 2011." Pomrehn said he also expects the center's flagship program, the Challenger Learning Center, a space mission simulator that transforms participants into scientists and engineers, to make significant gains this year. "The Challenger Center for Space Science Education hosted 22 missions in 2010," he said. "This number will increase in 2011 with the establishment of a scholarship program to allow every fifth-grade class within the Downey Unified School District to experience the 'Return to the Moon' mission." Councilman Roger Brossmer, who serves as a liaison between the city and the DUSD, praised the new scholarship program as an opportunity to further define the Columbia Memorial Space Center as a premier learning facility. "Field trips are our main priority," Brossmer said. "Right now, we're in the final stages of having every middle school student attend the center. We want it interactive, we want it high-tech and on the kids level...People said at the opening ‚àí this is neat, but where's all the stuff. It's not the Columbia museum, it's a learning center." Last month, the Mary T. Stauffer Foundation presented a $15,000 donation to the space center in order to pay for the scholarship program, which begins with Rio Hondo Elementary School on Feb. 25. A total of 52 fifth-grade classes will visit the facility before the end of the school year. Brossmer, however, acknowledged that the center, located at 12400 Columbia Way, got off to a rough start in 2009 after a much anticipated grand ribbon-cutting ceremony. "We were all frustrated at the pace of this," he said. "That's why we staffed up, made changes and we have high expectations. It's getting there, we're starting to see it." According to Brossmer, plans are underway for the construction of a large, second building that will be located southeast of the space center. Once completed, the new complex will house the city's space shuttle mock-up, Apollo boilerplates, and other aerospace memorabilia. This year, Pomrehn hopes to establish partnerships with several local utilities, including Time Warner, Verizon, The Gas Company, Coca-Cola and Kaiser Permanente, who will help create scholarship programs to fund field trips for students throughout greater Los Angeles. "We're working to make it self-sustaining and it'll come. Staff has been working hard to market the center at outreach events, on social media and through local print media," Pomrehn said. "My goal is to have no kid pay to come to the center." Pomrehn also plans to initiate several after-school programs highlighting the center's Lego Mission to Mars robotics lab by developing competitive teams of students who will both build and program NXT and VEX robots. Currently, the space center is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., maintained by 13 staff members. However, Pomrehn said he's striving for an active center with on-going events and activities throughout the day. "Going forward, I want three schools in the Challenger Learning Center during the day, three after school programs, and maybe a senior group, in the afternoon, and events at night," said Pomrehn who's also working to achieve another goal. "We're trying to get a NASA astronaut from Houston to come. One day, we'll have astronauts routinely...It's going to be great."

********** Published: February 10, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 43