Columbia Memorial Space Center still not fully operational

DOWNEY - The Columbia Memorial Space Center launched with much fanfare last month, entertaining nearly 2,200 guests on its opening weekend; however, the 20,000 sq. ft. center remains a work in progress and may be months away from total completion.As of last week, several exhibits inside of the space learning center were non-operational or incomplete, including the Challenger Learning Center, a space mission simulator, which will be used for space science education programs. "We're hoping to have these functional by January," said Jon Betthauser, executive director of the center. "We're still growing - there are some bugs, but we are a work in progress." Once inside the two-story facility, visitors are greeted by several hands-on exhibits including a rocket launcher, virtual flight simulator, and robotics lab, where kids can work from four workstations programming Lego Mindstorms robots. Betthauser said more exhibits, including one that highlights Downey's aerospace history, will materialize soon. "We want to partner with places like the California Science Center or Griffiths Observatory," said Betthauser, who hopes these facilities will share their after-school programs and unique exhibits. "The Columbia Memorial Space Center should be an extension of the park, instead of just school - we want to engage kids in science." Upon its completion in January, the Challenger Learning Center will give middle school students the opportunity to take on a simulated space mission. While some students direct the adventure from mission control, others will perform scientific duties inside a replicated space station. In the future, Betthauser expects the interactive exhibits to rotate covering topics such as science and cinema, planet exploration, and moon rocks. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is operated by 6 employees and volunteers, but Betthauser said soon the facility will have a program manager and center supervisor. Temporarily, the center is open Thursday through Sunday from 12 - 6 p.m. and costs $5 for ages 4 and up. Admission is free for ages 3 and under. On Tuesday, the City Council was to vote on the center's permanent hours and fees, but the resolution was altered after Councilmember David Gafin said staff "jumped the gun." Gafin asked that only the temporary interim hours and fees be approved so that the appropriate subcommittee could review the proposed permanent hours and fees. The Council voted unanimously to keep the center's current hours and send the remaining resolution items back for further review. Betthauser hopes the center will eventually be open 5 days a week, from Wednesday to Sunday, but he acknowledges that the facility must work up to that point. "Right now, the main focus is hiring staff and fundraising," Betthauser said. "If all goes well - we'll increase our times of operation." Betthauser said the goal is to make the space center self-sustaining by bringing in families and schools from across Los Angeles County, especially middle schoolers. "That would be great," said Betthauser recalling the grand opening. "Young people loved it here - one of the kids, 10-year-old Ryan, said it was the "best place ever, better than Disneyland."

********** Published: November 13, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 30