Alpine District closes popular space center — for now
School district is exploring options, but some are worried about uncertain future of the program.
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Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Utah students have commanded starships, traveled to distant planets and negotiated with alien leaders from within the walls of The Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center.

For the time being, however, the popular Utah field-trip destination in Pleasant Grove will stay empty and silent.

The Alpine School District closed the center in August due to safety concerns — namely electrical problems discovered by a state fire marshal conducting a routine inspection, said Rhonda Bromley, district spokeswoman. With repairs expected to cost about $700,000, Bromley said the district decided this month not to reopen the center in its current location. Instead, a district committee is exploring options for opening a new space center.

Bromley said the space program will continue, but it's unclear exactly when and where it will operate.

"It's been a great thing for not only schools in the district but for the community as well," Bromley said. "We are very anxious to explore other options, but obviously ... we're absolutely going to have safety of students be first."

It's a closure that's disappointed many, including those whose childhood memories are wrapped up in the center. Some are also concerned for the center's future.

David Kyle Herring, a center volunteer and donor, started a Facebook page titled "Save the Space Center." As of Wednesday afternoon, 457 people had "liked" the page.

Herring said he doesn't believe it was necessary to shut down the entire center, because not all of it needed electrical upgrades. And he's concerned about whether the new center will follow the same quality model or whether the district will try to change it into something else. He also wonders where the district plans to get the money to open a new one.

"We had a lot of freedom to be creative at the space center," Herring said. "It can't be boxed in. You can't say that it's just computers. You can't say that it's just science. It melds the sciences and the arts like no other program."

The center, which is housed in Pleasant Grove's Central Elementary School, has hosted field trips, afterschool, weekend and summer programs for the past 22 years. Students who visit the center take turns working in spaceship simulators, taking on different jobs to complete missions, many of which are inspired by real historical events.

Herring said he worries a lot of kids will now miss out on the opportunity.

"The space center has a proven track record of changing lives and changing them for the better," Herring said, "of giving students the ability to dream big."

Just last school year, more than 20,000 students visited the space center, Bromley said.

David Long, a professor at Brigham Young University, said the center has been a great opportunity for both kids and his own college students. For years, Long's electrical engineering students helped design parts of the center, such as isolinear chip readers, through which kids could help program the ships.

Long said the center helped his own son develop an interest in math and science. His son first visited the center with his school and later became a volunteer. He's now a mechanical engineer.

"It helped a lot of kids learn how to program and get into math and science," Long said.

Bromley said the committee tasked with exploring options for the space center's future will report its findings back to the district superintendent and the district's school board. She said when the new center opens will depend on what options are presented. The committee held its first meeting Wednesday, she said.

Central Elementary School remains open, because the safety issues had to do mainly with equipment in the space center, Bromley said.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —