HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA - 2019 was a banner year for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Visitors from around the world came to celebrate the city where the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts into space was developed.
The center hosted large crowds during commemoration events for the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing.
“We had record number of attendants. We had almost 45,000 students in Space Camp last year in 2019. It was an incredible year,” said Pat Ammons, communications manager for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. “We were starting off 2020 strong. Our attendance was higher just even in the museum, and we were heading into a sold-out summer of Space Camp.”
Ammons said it all came to a halt when COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. and forced much of American life to shut down.
Space Camp, the popular program the center operates in which youth learn how to be astronauts, closed completely in mid-March. Two months of revenue from campers and visitors to the museum evaporated instantly.
Though a state agency, Ammons said, the center does not get state or federal funding and did not qualify for most benefits in the multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package passed by Congress earlier this year.
“We earn our income through the people who walk through the door and the students who attend our Space Camp program,” she told VOA during a recent Skype interview from Huntsville. She said many of those visitors and campers come from international locations.
“About 20% yearly of our students come from overseas. In the fall, particularly, we have a lot of students who come from Australia, the U.K., China and India – a lot of students who come as part of school groups. And so, a lot of those students won’t be coming this year,” Ammons said.
As attendance at Space Camp and admission ticket sales tanked, the Center quickly burned through savings and credit.
“By the end of October, we would have exhausted all of the remaining cash that we had,” Ammons said, and that would have led to an even further reduction of staff.
“If we do not receive a minimum of $1.5 million by the end of October, we were not going to be able to keep the museum open, and we were not going to be able to offer Space Camp in 2021,” Ben Chandler said during a recent Skype interview.
Chandler is a graduate of multiple Space Camp programs and is now chairman of the nonprofit U.S. Space and Rocket Center Education Foundation, which helps fund the Center and Space Camp.
With the prospect of having to close their doors permanently, Chandler said, the decision was made to ask for help through an online GoFundMe campaign, which launched in late July.
“Inside of seven days, we’ve raised over $1.5 million. And last I looked, there had been 8,000 individuals who had donated to the campaign,” Chandler said.
Boeing Corporation and SAIC were two of the biggest donors, together contributing $750,000. Chandler said while the initial goal was met, and the organization transitions from “survive” to “thrive” mode, the fundraising effort is not over. The goal now is to replenish depleted savings and prepare for a return to normal operations.
“Now, we are trying to repair some of that financial damage, and that’s why we’re going to keep the campaign open and alive and try to do as much good as we can,” Chandler said.
Today, while Space Camp and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center are both currently open to visitors, operations are significantly reduced.