The Arizona Challenger Space Center is moving. But its 360-degree mural by the late Robert McCall, who did work for NASA, among others, will not be making the trip.

The Peoria Unified School District recently got the keys to a building that for 17 years housed the Arizona Challenger Space Center

The district acquired the three story, 28,000-square-feet building in August in a land-swap deal.

It makes sense from a proximity standpoint. The former museum is right next to the district’s Sunrise Mountain High School near 83rd Avenue and Lake Pleasant Parkway. 

But what does a school district do with a building that once contained a space-mission simulator, exhibit spaces and a massive rotunda with a 360-degree mural depicting the Big Bang and futuristic space exploration?

Next fall, it will become home to the district’s MET Professional Academy, which aims to treat high-school students as working professionals in medicine, engineering and technology.

Expanding the program

Barbara Coakley, director of the MET program, said the new space will allow the program to expand.

“Initially we’ll be able to accept more students into the program,” Coakley said. “And we are currently evaluating and working with our business partners on what other programs we might add in the future to meet the needs for our workforce.” 

About 75 students are currently enrolled in the MET Professional Academy, which has been around since 2014 and allows students to earn college credit, Danielle Airey, a district spokeswoman, said.

Tech students study cybersecurity and computer networking. Engineering students learn about innovation and entrepreneurship and pre-med students prepare for college and careers in healthcare. 

The academy partners with colleges and universities such as Grand Canyon University and Arizona State University, and host workshops and guest speakers from Cisco to the FBI.

“It’s project-based learning and experiences,” Coakley said. 

Anticipated opening July 1

The academy is currently housed in Old Main, the district’s first school building which opened in 1922 and had a $6.4 million renovation in 2014. Another district program, the Flex Academy, shares the space at Old Main. 

MET’s move to the former Challenger building will allow for the expansion of the Flex Academy, which offers individualized curriculum and smaller classes to students who are behind on credits, struggling in a large high school environment or experience other academic or social challenges.

The MET academy has large medical equipment such as hospital beds and ultrasound machines, 3-D printers, a server and other equipment that will be moved to the Challenger building after the end of the school year, Coakley said. 

Coakley hopes the building will be ready by July 1 to host an open house.

The district is assessing the cost of the move and any repairs that may be needed to accommodate the program, Airey said.

Kevin Knight of the Knight Transportation Group, who was a benefactor of the center and technically owned the building, donated about $251,000 to the district for remodeling and building upgrades.

The mural

Last week, Challenger officially handed over ownership of the building to the district, including the mural by renowned NASA artist and illustrator Robert McCall. Preservation experts had determined the mural couldn’t be moved without damage. 

Beverly Swayman, Challenger’s executive director, called the mural a “special treasure.”

The “Tour of the Universe” mural depicts the stages of life from the Big Bang, the prehistoric era to the rise of human civilization and space exploration. It also includes McCall’s futuristic view of humans colonizing space and traveling to different galaxies. 

It took the iconic artist six months to paint.

The Challenger center has valued the mural between $250,000 and $500,000.

Airey said the mural might be available for public viewing, but the district is still working to set up class schedules for the MET Professional Academy.

What about the museum?

As for Arizona Challenger Space Center, where it will permanently land remains up in the air.

The museum opened in 2000 as one of many Challenger Centers built to inspire young people about science and technology after the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy in 1986.

The center originally opened in partnership with the Peoria school district. However, financial problems surfaced by 2004 and the museum struck out on its own not long after. But money woes continued, in large part due to the debt payment on the $7.2 million building.

Knight stepped in to assist the center, but the non-profit center was unable to repay him a $3.6 million loan. 

The center closed in August and has temporarily moved to Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix, as it looks for a permanent landing spot. 


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