Construction begins on State Museum’s observatory, planetarium with help from $1 million grant from Boeing

10/12/2012 12:00 AM

10/12/2012 12:47 AM

With construction set to begin on the long-anticipated planetarium, observatory and 4D theater at the S.C. State Museum, the Boeing Co. stepped in Thursday with a $1 million grant.

The funds will support educational and outreach programs at the downtown Columbia museum. The live images and science lessons associated with the Boeing Observatory will be streamed online, allowing students in South Carolina classrooms, or around the world, to join in the learning.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is the education buzz word these days, but many youngsters treat it like bitter medicine they have to take.

“These guys (at the museum) are going to make it fun,” said Jack Jones, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina.

South Carolina’s favorite-son astronaut was on hand for Thursday’s announcement.

Charles Bolden Jr., the Columbia resident who flew space shuttle missions before taking over as NASA administrator in 2009, said the expansion will make the museum “the only one in the country with the right mix” of an observatory where children can peer into space, a planetarium that allows them to take journeys into that vast realm and a 4D theater with entertainment that drives home the lessons.

The Boeing grant announcement was included in a morning of speeches marking the start of construction on the $23 million project, dubbed Windows to New Worlds. The expansion was first discussed 15 years ago, and fundraising began a decade ago.

The museum announced last October that construction would begin in March, but various hurdles pushed it back six months. Museum officials expect the construction to take 12 to 15 months.

Bolden credited the project’s many local backers for their persistence.

“There are some hard-charging folks here who never say never,” said Bolden, who recalled when his school-teacher mother had to arrange special trips for local African-American children to Columbia’s old planetarium during the segregated Jim Crow years.

With the new museum expansion, “Columbia will be attached scientifically to the rest of the world,” Bolden said.

A 55-foot digital dome planetarium will be in a glass-and-stucco section added to the east end of the museum.

The observatory, built around an historic Alvan Clark telescope, will be on the roof.

The museum’s existing theater will be converted into a 4D-sensory facility with special seats that vibrate, blast air and shoot mists of water.

State tax dollars will pay for half of the expansion, with the rest covered by NASA ($2 million), Columbia ($1.5 million), Richland County ($1 million), Lexington County ($500,000), Forest Acres ($150,000), corporate donors such as BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Boeing, Colonial Life and SCANA as well as individual donors.

The construction begins as the museum plans to celebrate its 25th year in the historic Columbia Mill building next to the Congaree River.

“Twelve to 15 months from how, we’ll have a brand new museum like no other,” said Jay Pitts, executive director of the museum’s fundraising foundation. “Right here in little ol’ South Carolina, we’re going to have a world-class facility.”

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