For the Space Foundation, it’s truly a summer of discovery.
For the first time, the 30-year-old organization has the room to display decades’ worth of space memorabilia – models of the Mars rover, exhibits from NASA’s space shuttle program, the only moon rock in the state of Colorado.
And staff members have combined it all with the technology and a series of hands-on educational opportunities designed to bring families into the foundation, which now has 17,000 square feet for a space museum, classes, a conference center and a variety of educational and space-related activities.
It’s time for the group, headquartered locally but with an international presence, to discover how it can change the local tourism scene while expanding its educational mission.
The “Summer of Discovery” series is a new push for wider local exposure for the organization, which puts on the annual Space Symposium that is attended by about 9,000 people every year – including space agencies from China, Europe and Japan.
But that isn’t open to the public, and the Summer of Discovery is designed to be accessible to everyone, regardless of age. It’s a long-held vision made possible when the organization moved into new headquarters at Arrowswest Drive, just off West Garden of the Gods Road.
“This Summer of Discovery can best be described as a shakedown cruise to gauge local interest,” said Carol Hively, communications director for the foundation.
The organization is experimenting with the idea of creating interesting ways to attract visitors.
The first time out, the foundation didn’t scrimp on big events. Every week, the discovery center features a new theme – for 10 weeks, 10 different themes: among them, one giant leap, women in space, Colorado days, ocean themes and astronauts. In August, they’re combining local brewpubs with space. Visitors who are 21 or older can taste a flight of local beers while learning how space technology can be used to create quality craft brews.
“This reflects the foundation’s commitment to formal and informal space-related education,” said Kevin Cook, the foundation’s vice president of marketing and communications, at a recent event celebrating the first traveling exhibit from NASA. “We think it’s going well; we have had about 3,000 people here for the first few weeks. Some families come back every day of the week, and some only come for a single day. But so far, it seems to be going well.”
On the day the foundation unveiled its NASA exhibit, the building was packed with kids and adults – all wanting to touch the tires from the shuttle and look at other parts from the now-retired program.
“You know, they only used the tires once,” Cook said. “When you have a multi-million dollar machine, you want to make sure the tires work.”
That kind of first-hand information makes the Space Foundation a desired summer activity for kids who dream of going to Mars or landing on the moon.
“Really, we’re the only museum of its kind from Denver to New Mexico,” he said. “We think attendance will grow as word gets out.”
The now-expanded museum features new hands-on experiments as well as activities using the center’s Science-on-a-Sphere, a giant globe that can be used to talk about weather patterns, ocean currents, space satellites and planets in the solar system.
“We started smaller,” Cook said. “And we’ve expanded, just about five weeks ago, to open more space. We have the art contest winners – and we sent them on a disc to the Space Station. We have the Apollo 11 experience that will take people on the mission as well. This really is an economic development issue; we’re bringing in money from other states – people on vacation who wouldn’t be stopping here otherwise.”
And the discovery center boasts its own Area 51, named after the famed top-secret facility in Nevada, reputed to be the place the military tests experimental aircraft. In this case, it’s a room for small conferences and business meetings.
It all makes sense, said Chelsy Murphy, communications director at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“When you think about it, we have a lot of educational activities here in Colorado Springs,” she said. “And this effort fits in well with them – the Pioneers Museum, the Florissant Fossil Beds, the Fine Arts Center museum, all have an educational focus. It’s an important niche for us, and one we push wherever we can.”
Murphy says the city relies on its family visitors, and any attractions that cater to families are advertised both to tourism writers and bloggers.
“Most of our visitors are families, so we want to let them know whenever we have a new attraction in town,” she said. “The Space Foundation has talked about this for years, and we’re glad to see it happening.”
Another organization could be gauging the success of the Summer of Discovery: the Science Center project. The brainchild of Steve Rothstein, president of the group, the Science Center is envisioned as a hands-on science museum, a facility that offers experiential programming and exhibits and elevates “learning about science to new levels.”
It’s more than a museum, according to educational information about the fundraising effort. The planned 60,000-square-foot facility will be a destination for doing science, not just talking about it.
Cook says he definitely sees the two groups working together, once the Science Center becomes reality.
“It sounds like something we’d be interested in partnering with,” he said. “We definitely have the same sort of mission. I think we’d definitely complement each other. But we’re glad to be leading the science charge, here at the Space Foundation.”