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U. museum to manage planetarium

Lately Hansen Planetarium and Salt Lake County officials have been feeling that the planetarium has fallen from its wide-eyed soaring among stars and galaxies and comets and Saturn's rings in favor of simply orbiting the Earth and maybe making a quick trip to the moon once in a while.

In an effort to give the venerable institution a creative and financial shot in the arm, Wednesday Salt Lake County officially turned over management of the 32-year-old planetarium to the Utah Museum of Natural History, a University of Utah subsidiary.The change was announced in a Thursday press conference on the planetarium's front steps.

Museum and (new) planetarium director Sarah George characterized the four-year management contract as an "engagement" that, if all goes well, may afterward flower into marriage in the form of turning the entire responsibility of the planetarium over to the natural history museum.

According to the management contract, as well as state law, the county still has ultimate responsibility for the planetarium. University and county officials will lobby to get that law changed if the courtship is consummated.

Salt Lake County Commission Chairwoman Mary Callaghan and county Department of Human Services Director Kerry Steadman said the university is more suited to managing the planetarium, given its scientific and fund-raising expertise.

"The biggest thing we're going to gain is (scientific) knowledge," Callaghan said. "As we know, science is changing by the second."

George said the museum and planetarium would combine for several functions and services, such as a statewide traveling educational and promotional exhibition. ("Synergy" was a word much used during the press conference.)

While there are no plans to change physical facilities in the near future, George is keeping the option open of moving or expanding the planetarium to another downtown location or to the university research park, where 14 acres have been set aside for expansion of the museum.

There are a grand total of 24 parking spaces for the 250,000 yearly visitors to the museum and planetarium.

Things at the planetarium have been unsettled lately. George Hansen Jr., son of Beatrice Hansen, who in 1964 founded the planetarium with $400,000 from her deceased husband's estate, said earlier this month that planetarium programs have lost their innovative edge or remained stagnant since the early 1990s.

What's more, a year ago County Attorney Doug Short conducted a highly publicized and controversial raid on planetarium offices, which spawned lawsuits and finger-pointing galore. That investigation is still officially open, though Short has done nothing since.

This isn't the first time the planetarium has changed hands. Salt Lake City ran things until the late 1970s, when it turned the planetarium over to the county, saying the planetarium fit more within county services. Now the county is doing the same thing with the University of Utah.