Scientist wants to Create Iowa City-area Space Museum

IOWA CITY — Charles Miller has two planetarium star field projectors in his Iowa City home — one purchased on eBay and one he built from scratch.

The projectors haven’t had much of an audience so far besides the occasional Boy Scout troop that has stopped by to see them in action, but the engineer and scientist hopes to bring them to a larger audience.

“I remember the fervor of the space race and the Apollo landings,” he said. “Now there’s a real issue in declining interest in math and science.”

Miller is the driving force behind the Iowa Space Science Center, a proposed museum in the Iowa City area. He hopes it could serve both as a tourism destination and as a vehicle to promote better science literacy.

Although his career has been focused on electrical engineering and auditory research, Miller has a strong personal interest in astronomy and space science, and he recently left his research work to devote himself full time to creating the center. He thinks there’s a gap in local appreciation for space science, which is unfortunate given Iowa’s part in American space exploration.

Much of that legacy is focused around the legacy of James Van Allen, a Mount Pleasant-born scientist who was heavily involved in the launching of scientific probes to study outer space during the Cold War. Van Allen, who died in Iowa City in 2006 at the age of 91, is the spiritual father of the project, Miller said.

The center proposal comes at a time of national and state concern over science education. Miller points to 2010 report by the National Science Foundation, which concluded that America was not meeting the science and engineering education needs of its students, and that the country’s working engineers and scientists were getting older with fewer replacements on the way.

The problem has drawn attention in state government, with Gov. Terry Branstad recently creating a statewide advisory council for science, technology, engineering and math education in an effort to increase the subjects’ prominence in Iowa schools.

Miller hopes he can assist in those efforts, but first, he said, science museums need to be designed to better communicate their subjects.

“If you compare the environment of an art museum to a science museum, it’s a much more focused environment. I’d like to design a space that would focus more on contemplation and thinking,” he said.

Rather than moving straight toward establishing a building, Miller is raising money to create a traveling astronomy exhibit he can take to local schools. The portable dome and projector setup he wants would cost $30,000 for prebuilt equipment, but he hopes to possibly build his own, which would cost less.

He has established a non-profit foundation with a local board of directors to organize the fundraising effort.

Once the portable museum is complete, he’ll move on to create an after-school program and then the physical center itself. He hopes to collaborate with local educators so that the exhibits correlate to state science teaching standards.

“If things go well, this could be a major regional attraction,” he said. “We’ll use space science to get people in the door, but the main mission is to get people talking about science again.”