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Peoria's old Arizona Challenger Space Center to get new life in 2020

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 6/14/2019 Joshua Bowling
a large green field in front of a building: The Peoria Unified School District approved plans to repurpose the old Arizona Challenger Space Center Building. © Courtesy of Peoria Unified School District The Peoria Unified School District approved plans to repurpose the old Arizona Challenger Space Center Building.

The Peoria Unified School District got the keys to the Arizona Challenger Space Center's old home a year and a half ago and hasn't put it to use, but recently approved plans will bring new life and a new name to the building next year.

The school board in late May approved $1.6 million in renovations that will transform the building into the Sunrise Mountain Arts Center and move arts classes there. That will in turn free up seven classrooms in the adjacent Sunrise Mountain High School, near 83rd Avenue and Lake Pleasant Parkway.

It will cost an additional $383,000 to repurpose the high school's old art classrooms into regular classrooms. 

The moves will provide space for another 210 students on the main campus, which is at capacity, Chief Operations Officer John Croteau told board members.

Sunrise Mountain High School, in Peoria's growing north side, ended the 2018-2019 school year with 1,906 students and is projected to hit 2,053 in the 2019-2020 school year. It had 1,871 students in the 2017-2018 school year, according to numbers from the Arizona Department of Education.

"We need to use that building," Croteau said at the school board meeting. "We need to address some of the (overcrowding) issues in the north."

Meanwhile, the Challenger Space Center that once occupied the space is fundraising to reopen in north Phoenix.

Acclaimed mural will remain

The district's arts center is expected to open in August 2020.

The massive building has a unique, circular shape and a 2,300-square-foot rotunda with a towering mural spanning four stories.

The 28,000-square-foot space center opened in 2000 as one of dozens of Challenger Centers developed around the world after the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster that killed five astronauts and two others, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The idea was to inspire young people about science and space exploration.

The building's 360-degree mural illustrating the Big Bang and space exploration, by the late NASA artist and movie illustrator Robert McCall, will remain.

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Old plans for space fell through

The school district acquired the building in a land swap in 2017 as the Arizona Challenger Space Center was long beleaguered by financial troubles.

At the time, the district's MET Professional Academy, which gives high school students college credit and working experience in medicine, engineering and technology, was supposed to move into the building.

The move would have created extra space in Old Main, which houses MET and the district's Flex Academy, by bringing about 75 MET students to the renovated facility.

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However, the school board tabled those plans last spring after a report found the move would cost $1.5 million — more than board members expected.

The district's new plans cost more than that, but school board members said it meets a pressing need for crowded Sunrise Mountain.

Challenger center finds new home

The Arizona Challenger Space Center temporarily found a home at Phoenix's Metrocenter Mall

In November, it moved to Paradise Valley Unified School District's old Foothills Elementary School building off 44th Street, just south of Union Hills Drive.

The center is raising funds and has not yet reopened.

The center had raised $250,000, but needs $250,000 more for exhibits and to make the facility ADA compliant, Executive Director Beverly Swayman said. Donations can be made at azchallenger.org/donate.html.

The center is on a renewable two-year lease with the Paradise Valley school district and doesn't have an opening date scheduled yet. It won't have one until officials finish retrofitting the building and reassembling the space mission simulator, Swayman said.

Why the hold up? Moving artifacts is one thing, but it turns out moving a space mission simulator is more difficult.

"You can imagine how many technical components go into that and fitting it in a different-sized space," Swayman said.

The space center is leasing the building at $1 a year and will partner with the school district to provide students STEM-oriented workshops, tours and classes.

"There's a fourth industrial revolution and we need to make sure we're training students for that," Swayman said. "We need to adapt."

The museum will have all the same exhibits and flight simulator from its Peoria location, plus new community events, including family stargazing nights, open to the public, Swayman said.

"The move was way harder than we anticipated," she said. "It's not the exact same thing transported to a new location. It's a completely new format."

Reach reporter Joshua Bowling at jbowling@azcentral.com or 602-444-8138. Follow him on Twitter @MrJoshuaBowling.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Peoria's old Arizona Challenger Space Center to get new life in 2020

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