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Space centers need cash to stay aloft

    Astronaut Daniel Tani shared his experiences with Laie Elementary School’s sixth-graders Jan. 25 during a visit to the Challenger Center Hawaii. A bill has been introduced in the state Senate requesting money to support the center at Barbers Point Elementary School.

The future of two space-related educational programs in Hawaii is in jeopardy.

Money to pay teachers at the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center in Kona and the Challenger Center Hawaii in Leeward Oahu will run out at the end of this school year as stimulus dollars disappear. Funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was provided by Gov. Linda Lingle after state funding was cut last year due to the budget crisis.

The centers were established in honor of Onizuka, a native of Kona and the first Asian-American astronaut to reach space. Onizuka was among seven crew members who died after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

Senate Bill 1173 was recently introduced requesting money to support the Challenger Center Hawaii at Barbers Point Elementary. The bill requests appropriations of $120,000 for the 2011-2012 school year and $100,000 for the 2012-2013 school year, providing that the center has matching funds.

Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jill Tokuda said the measure aims to shift the center toward a higher level of self-sufficiency, whether it be through admission fees from participating schools, private funding or donations.

Approximately 5,000 students visit the Challenger Center annually.

In July 2010, the Challenger Center started charging admission fees to schools — $250 for public schools and $500 for private schools — to help keep the program afloat. More than $250,000 is needed to cover salaries for three teachers, a part-time teacher and part-time aide, as well as operational expenses and licensing fees, according to program coordinator Liane Kim.

The center promotes teamwork among students and gives them an opportunity to apply their math and science skills while simulating space missions, she said.

Claude Onizuka, younger brother of the late astronaut, visited Gov. Neil Abercrombie last month and asked him to save the teachers’ positions.

"We should fight to keep them and not lose them," he said.

The space center at Kona Airport is privately run by the Onizuka Memorial Committee, of which Onizuka’s brother serves as chairman.

Approximately $75,000 to $85,000 is needed to fund one teacher position at the space center. Nancy Tashima has served as educational curator of the museum since it opened in 1991. Approximately 8,000 students and 12,000 adults visit the museum annually, where they learn about Onizuka and science.

"This is beyond the science classroom walls. This is education in our community that provides opportunities for families to learn along with their children and being inspired by Ellison Onizuka," Tashima said.

Onizuka’s widow, Lorna Onizuka, said the programs are close to her heart. Onizuka, who works at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Houston, said she continues to push for funding for the programs, talking to lawmakers and writing letters of support.

In a phone interview from Houston, she said she hopes the programs will continue for years to come as they are a tremendous value to students.

"It’s something I think my husband would’ve wanted," she said.

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