Space Foundation combines its education, tourism missions

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The Space Foundation’s education and tourism missions are about to take flight.

Among the nonprofit’s goals are to educate tomorrow’s astronauts and help turn Colorado Springs into a tourist destination for space enthusiasts.

As leaders cut the ribbon on their spacious new El Pomar Space Gallery and Northrop Grumman Science Center, the group will move that much closer to completing both missions.

As recently as 18 months ago, it seemed like Mission Impossible. It looked like the city might lose the Space Foundation, a crown jewel and major economic driver for the city, with other cities courting the group, promising better office space and more recognition. But thanks to the combined efforts of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC (now known as the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance) and El Pomar Foundation, the nonprofit landed at a spacious headquarters building just off Garden of the Gods Road.

It’s spent the last year renovating office space and creating an out-of-this-world experience for visitors and students. Now it’s ready to go rocketing into classrooms along the Front Range, luring students to the science center.

“If we can get one physicist out of all the students we see here, then it’s a success,” said spokeswoman Janet Stevens. “It’s vital that we get kids interested in math and science careers, and we know we have to start early.”

Education and business

Before anyone starts teaching about space sciences, the Space Foundation is aiming to get kids’ attention. The huge blue planet hanging in the middle of the room should do that. Powered by four projectors, the “Science on a Sphere” looks like a giant hologram floating in mid-air — like something out of a science-fiction movie.

On it, students can see the surfaces of Mars and Jupiter. They can track the path Hurricane Katrina took through the Gulf Coast region and see the devastating Japanese tsunami.

“This really gets their attention,” Stevens said. “They can study ocean currents, learn about climate change, see the ice caps melting. It gives the science classes something visual.”

It’s all possible through a $360,000 grant from Northrop Grumman, announced at this year’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. The reason? Big aerospace companies want to secure their future workforce.

“It’s about survival,” Stevens said. “There’s this acute shortage of engineers, physicists, mathematicians. Big companies realize they need these workers if they’re going to stay in business.”

Investing in early science and math education makes sense to aerospace companies that have offices in the Springs. The city is home to some of the giants, such as Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

“STEM education initiatives like this are critical for today’s children to become tomorrow’s leaders in space,” said Gary Ervin, a corporate vice president of Northrop Grumman and president of the company’s Aerospace Systems sector. “They are the future stewards of our nation’s leadership in technology to keep both our economy strong and our residents secure while advancing our understanding of the world around us.”

The Space Foundation is making the science center open to all K-12 students along the Front Range and into New Mexico. Foundation leaders think it’ll be a big draw, since there are only 85 science spheres in the world. There are a few in Colorado, developed in Boulder at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The goal is to use the high-tech spheres to set kids on an early the path to science careers — the earlier the better.

“Whenever we ask our astronauts when they wanted to become scientists, it was early — first and second grade,” Stevens said. “So if we’re going to keep these jobs in Colorado Springs and in the United States, we need to get them interested early.”

But it isn’t all fun and games. The Space Foundation takes education seriously. Its teachers all have master’s degrees in math and science, some in space sciences. The curriculum is carefully measured and studied to make sure students are learning something.

“We don’t just want them to have fun — although it is fun,” Stevens said. “It’s important that they’re learning, that they’re understanding the importance of aerospace careers and of space exploration in general.”

Tourism and business

Business and community leaders also should understand the space program’s importance, particularly to jobs in Colorado Springs, Stevens said.

Sometimes, she says, it seems the city focuses on being the headquarters to the U.S. Olympic Committee — ignoring the fact that its aerospace jobs are some of the city’s highest-paying professions.

“Aerospace has a huge presence, not just in Colorado, but here in the Springs,” Stevens said. “We get overlooked, I think, because it’s the design and research that takes place here. We have the engineering segment, not the manufacturing segment. But it’s still an important part of the economy. We need more recognition.”

She won’t get any argument from Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Regional Business Alliance. He says his group has an aerospace and defense council with more than 50 members.

“We routinely sit down with Elliot Pulham (president and CEO of the foundation) to talk about the importance of what they do,” he said. “We definitely recognize what aerospace brings to the local economy.”

It’s not just about the jobs themselves. Every year, the foundation hosts the Space Symposium at The Broadmoor, bringing more than 9,000 people to the city — NASA scientists, military experts, foreign astronauts.

Every year, some companies leave behind their static displays. The Space Foundation has stored lunar modules, full-sized rockets and models of unmanned spacecraft. One astronaut even loaned his collection of space food from throughout the decades. They’ve never had a place to put it all.

“It’s been in storage all these years,” Stevens said. “So we’re very excited. The only problem is we don’t have enough room to display everything — but this is only the first phase. We’ll be opening a second phase once fundraising is finished.”

The space food will be on display for opening day, Oct. 9. It’ll include a collection of what astronauts eat in outer space, and it might not be what everyone expects.

“Now, if it can stay at room temperature it can go to the International Space Station,” Stevens said. “So they get some fresh fruit and vegetables. They pack the supplies in, so they can see and smell the fresh food immediately.”

Visitors will also see some items from Soviet space exploration. It seems that the Soviet Union was secretly sending moon buggies and rovers to the moon throughout the 1970s. The moon buggies are still there — except for the one on display at the Space Foundation.

“This one never went up,” Stevens said. “Of course, it wouldn’t have, They left them there. But it’s still great to see what the Soviets were doing.”

The moon buggy is part of the foundation’s opening exhibit, “Launch to the Moon,” which also includes American and Soviet spacesuits, a historical timeline of the U.S. trip to the moon and a model of the lunar module.

All of it adds up to a great visitors’ experience, Stevens said. The foundation is working with the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau to let tourists outside the Springs know about the space center.

“We’re in a great location,” Stevens said. “We’re so close to Garden of the Gods. We think we’re going to be a real destination in a few years. Particularly when people realize our docents are volunteers, but they’re volunteers who are retired from aerospace jobs. Who better to talk to about the space program than someone who used to work there?”

If you go

El Pomar Space Gallery and Northrop Grumman Science Center

4425 Arrowswest Drive

Opens Oct. 9

Hours:

10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays

10 a.m. – 5 p.m. First Saturday of the month

Admission:

$5 Adults

$4 Seniors (65+)

$4 Students (18+ w/student ID)

$2 Children (4-17)

Children 3 and under — free

Military — free with photo ID