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Hiring process and revamping continue at space center

The 30-foot rocket, stored in a room near the boilers, will be assembled in the spring.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Gerulskis is building the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in much the same way, piece by piece, until something stable takes shape.

With the state no longer funding the attraction dedicated to the two space pioneers, Gerulskis has been overseeing the move to privatization, which calls for community support from citizens and businesses like never before.

The center’s director, a post she’s held for 15 years, said recently she needs to finish hiring the staff before she can turn her attention to fundraising and the new exhibits she hopes will sell tickets.

The center remains open, working with one third the personnel it had before budget cuts changed the landscape. The official switch to self sufficiency began on the first of this year.

“There are so many details that take so much more time than you would think,” Gerulskis said. “We’re just getting all the basics rolling. It’s a tremendous job to do all of the transitional work.”

The educational facility, which features a planetarium as its main selling point, announced last fall that cuts in state spending meant the yearly $800,000 payment toward its $1.9 million budget would end, leaving the center to raise $450,000 annually to maintain staff and services.

The state continues to lease the buildings for $1 a year and pay for the yearly debt services, originally a bond worth $4 million.

A new 14-member board first met last June and was officially approved by the state in September. As for the hiring process, Belmont High School graduate Tiffany Nardino has been promoted to educational coordinator for programs, a move announced last week.

Nardino, 28, graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and taught astronomy there before moving to Concord. She’ll oversee the recently hired part-time staff of five, which will manage all forms of education at the center: exhibits, workshops, summer camps and shows presented in the planetarium’s theater.

Four of the part-time workers were employed by the center previously, including R.P. Hale, an astronomy teacher at St. Paul’s School; Don O’Brien of Hopkinton, a pilot who will teach aviation; Christy Roberts, a former chemistry lab worker at St. Paul’s with a deep background in science; and Tyler Dupuis a science education teacher at the University of New Hampshire.

The lone newcomer is Michelle Devine, who teaches third- and fourth-graders in an after-school program. Volunteers are also part of the mix.

Six full-time employees have been hired, with the three slots forming the nucleus of the operation – chief financial officer, development director and marketing coordinator – yet to be determined.

The development director, responsible for fundraising, will largely determine what the center eventually has to offer, along with any grants that are approved.

Already in place are chairs used in the TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, purchased by Gerulskis at an auction in New York City. A fan of the Star Trek franchise, Gerulskis’s sister still sends her a Valentine’s Day card from Mr. Spock.

“I thought I was bad, but it was nothing like these people in New York,” Gerulskis said. “There was a guy sitting in the row I was in that had his head shaved and looked exactly like Captain Picard and he had the whole suit on. And there was a lady behind me trying to buy Vulcan jewelry, and another guy was there who only bid on space ships.”

A rocket ship, which doubles as a slide, is being stored in bits and pieces and will serve as the centerpiece for a new playground, scheduled to be built in the spring. Rental of a forklift and crane will be needed.

Perhaps the most important vision is the plan to create a room specifically designed to teach students about Christa McAuliffe, the Concord High School social studies teacher who was killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, and Alan Shepard of Derry, the first American in space.

The 27th anniversary of McAuliffe’s death was yesterday. At the time, after McAuliffe had been selected for the mission among 11,000 candidates, the disaster attracted dozens of national journalists to Concord, many looking to interview the surviving members of her family.

The center’s officials acknowledge that more information on the two astronauts is needed, and Gerulskis said she’ll reach out to the two families to help build the exhibit.

NASA has presented the center with a statue given to McAuliffe by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush after she’d been named the winner. Also, a former board member has information and photographs related to the investigation on the explosion.

“We’re going to put them in a little file cabinet where you can look at them if you want to,” Gerulskis said.

The focus, however, will be on McAuliffe’s life and contributions, rather than the accident that took her life.

“We really want to concentrate on her teaching,” Gerulskis said. “We want to look at what it was like with her training after she was selected.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or
rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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