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The Fleet Takes Off


The sign in the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center gift shop is meant to discourage the indoor use of the toy airplanes crowded into a bin, but it is every bit as apt for the excited schoolchildren zooming around the exhibit floor of the center. Their imaginations have been fueled by this visit, and it seems that with the slightest encouragement they, too, might depart skyward.

No dry and dusty museum, this. Well, maybe a little dusty —an ambitious 14-month, $13 million expansion project is still wiping up footprints behind itself—but the exhibits and displays are as lively and interactive as any kid who ever got bored on a field trip could wish.

From the first, an aim of the Fleet Center has been interactivity, that buzz word of museums struggling to remain relevant to recent generations raised on ever more frenetic amusements. And now, after sometimes taking a back seat to entertainment while the world’s first Omnimax theater paid the bills for the rest of the center, education steps into a more prominent place alongside the other attractions as this showcase for science soars in size to 93,505 square feet—more than twice the original space. Finally, there’s room for the entire Fleet to fly.

None of this, of course, has happened overnight or effortlessly. Jeffrey Kirsch, executive director since 1983, says, “When I came to the Fleet, one of the things that had always bugged me was that the science center was so small. The space theater is a major contribution to our culture, because it’s now worldwide and it started in San Diego. But here we had this relatively small science center that was almost lip service to informal science education.

“In the original planning, as the budgets worked out, this was what we could afford to do,” Kirsch explains. “So our board decided six or seven years ago that this is the time we do it right: You don’t just put in another attraction to bring in more dollars, you don’t just put in an educational component you can’t support, and you don’t just put in more staff facilities without there being programmatic opportunities you’re going to create. Our charter was to develop with the architects a place that will be a self-contained unit the day it opens, that will give us room to expand and try new ideas at the same time.” For instance, the SciTours multisensory simulation attraction premiering May 30 occupies one of two spaces that would quickly allow the addition of another simulator, should the motion-based “trips” to Mars prove wildly popular—or the space could take an entirely different use. And, says Kirsch, “We did not try from the get-go to fill up the center with exhibits, either old or new.”

The folks at the Fleet also took some of their squeaky-new elbow room for a test run, opening about 20 percent of the expanded area in December to work out some of the inevitable issues of a revamped operation, such as changes in ticketing procedures. Kirsch declares himself pleased with the preview—and eager for the debut of the rest this month: “It’s going to be great to get honest-to-goodness people in there experiencing it. I know we’re not going to disappoint people.” Since the Fleet’s turnstiles click off an average of 650,000 visitors a year—and that’s at its previous size—Kirsch can breathe a large sigh of relief about all the people who won’t be disappointed.

At 25, Balboa Park’s Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center is launching itself into the future with an ambitious expansion

Dennis Mammana, resident astronomer at the Fleet for the last 11 years, thinks “the expansion is going to make a big difference for us. It’s going to get a lot more people in here, and we’re going to be very, very visible.” One of the ways in which this man who calls himself the “Joan Embery of the space theater” will be more visible is in the classroom. The Fleet Center’s space for educational programs has more than tripled—including renovations to the lecture hall, an auditorium that’s globally teleconnected, two new classrooms and a teacher resource room—and Mammana’s multiple talents as teacher, lecturer, writer and photographer will be even more in demand.

It’s a challenge he shares with the hundred or so staff members who are gearing up for more of everything, and the dozens of volunteers, the dedicated likes of whom brought the Fleet to life on March 10, 1973, 16 years to the day after it was first proposed. Another trait these folks share is longevity on the job: Historian and space theater console operator Mary Anderson holds the record at 25 years—as well as the distinction of being the only employee there since day one—but Pam Crooks (deputy executive director of public operations) and Lynne Kennedy (deputy executive director of education and exhibits) are both approaching 20-year anniversaries. What’s a decade or two when you’re having fun?

Even the volunteers can’t bear to leave, it seems. Jane Fetter, chair of the May 16 gala that officially kickstarts the grand-opening celebration, was donating her time to the Fleet before it was ever built. She was instrumental in constructing a core of volunteers to help with the fledgling Fleet’s needs until the budget allowed for paid positions—which eventually put the auxiliary she founded onto the unemployment list. She says, “When the 25th anniversary and grand opening came, it was a challenge I couldn’t resist, and so I stepped back in.” Fetter and another 55 volunteers who couldn’t resist have been working for a year and a half to shape the black-tie party they’ve dubbed “Out of This World” into an unforgettable evening.

“People believe in this place,” Kirsch says appreciatively. And the plans he and his staff have for the wide-open future at the newly spacious science center are designed to ensure that people will keep on believing—visitors as well as employees—and keep hurrying back. In Balboa Park as in sports, the race is to the Fleet.
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