- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (AP) - The space center inside the Kona International Airport honoring the life of an astronaut who died decades ago in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is closing its doors next year.

The Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center is closing at the end of March after 30 years of business, West Hawaii Today reported Thursday (http://bit.ly/1YoNipY).

“In the next few months, people should go visit if they can,” said Rick Asbach, one of the directors of the nonprofit facility. “It would be good if we could get some places in the community to put some of the things on display, rather than putting them in storage and having them sort of melt away.”

The center will be replaced by a new gateway to an airport renovation priced at $70 million.

The state Department of Transportation has offered to construct a new building for the center across the street. But after considering four different sites, the space center’s governing board has decided that they would not be able to afford the higher operational costs of a much larger building. The current facility stands at 2,500 square feet.

Chairman of the board and the astronaut’s brother, Claude Onizuka, said the center has welcomed about 22,000 members of the public each year, including about 8,000 students.

“If I had just one heartfelt wish, it would be that we could continue educating and inspiring youngsters in memory of Ellison and his Challenger crewmates,” said curator Nancy Tashima.

The center features displays of space shuttle missions, lunar landers, videos from inside the International Space Station as well as memorabilia from Onizuka’s own life.

The center will still be open for the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident, which took the lives of its seven astronauts, on Jan. 28.

“What Ellison had really wanted to do was share his knowledge and dreams,” Onizuka said. “I think the center has done that. But things change, and I think now the time has come for the center to close.”

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Information from: West Hawaii Today, http://www.westhawaiitoday.com

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