Arkansas Aerospace Education Center (AEC)
aka: Aerospace Education Center
Located near Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport (Adams Field), the Arkansas Aerospace Education Center (AEC) provided the state with aerospace education through the Workforce Development Center of University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College. The center, which was owned by the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society, also housed the state’s only IMAX theater and a library that held the Jay Miller Aviation Collection of aerospace materials.
When fundraising began, the center was intended to include a magnet school, a library of aerospace materials, a museum, and an IMAX movie theater. Before the center’s completion, however, the Little Rock School District decided not to build an aerospace magnet school at the center. Another feature, to be called the Arkansas High Technology Training Center, also was struck down when state legislators voted not to allocate $1.5 million to establish the training center.
The library component of the aerospace center was built in 1995 after the AEC bought the Jay Miller Aviation Collection. For $625,000, Jay Miller of Arlington, Texas, a collector of aviation material, sold the pieces he had collected over forty years. The collection includes photos, magazines, aviation hardware, and about 6,000 books pertaining to aviation. It is one of the largest compilations of aviation material apart from the Smithsonian Institution’s. The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) partnered with the aerospace center and established a library branch there in 1995.
A school was finally added in 1997, when Pulaski Technical College joined forces with the aerospace center. It established a workforce development center that opened at the aerospace center in 2000, through which Pulaski Technical College offered industrial and maintenance training, as well as computer instruction.
An IMAX theater with its six-story screen and advanced sound system was built into the center. The AEC used a $500,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a donation from the Department of Energy for building costs, energy-efficient design, and educational use.
The aerospace center opened on June 10, 1995, and the IMAX screen debuted with a movie, The Dream Is Alive. Unveiled the same day was the Aerospace Library of CALS.The Aerospace branch housed the Jay Miller Collection but also included adult and juvenile materials. Months after its opening, the AEC board fired the center’s director, and the ensuing federal investigation into the center’s use of grant money caused bad publicity. Annual attendance at the center dropped in 1997 from 133,000 to 84,000, portending financial disaster. It made a comeback with the popular IMAX movie Everest. After the movie opened in May 1998, attendance reached record numbers (24,425 for that month alone), and the center’s popularity continued to rise as its reputation spread throughout the state.
As part of its museum component, several airplanes were on display, including a model of the Wright Flier and an original Sopwith Camel. Several cars were also located at the center, as well as a replica of the Apollo Command and Service Module.
The center continued to expand, showing more IMAX films and providing educational programs about flight and aerospace technology, such as McDermott’s Workshop. In June 2005, the center opened the EpiSphere, a digital dome theater.
On May 27, 2010, the CALS branch at the center permanently closed. Faced with competition from commercial IMAX movie venues and a poor economy, the Aerospace Education Center announced that it would cease operations as of January 1, 2011, and that its assets would be liquidated. In 2014 plans were made to demolish the center. A large portion of the complex, including the theater, was demolished later that year.
For additional information:
Aronson, Peter. “Imaginations Soar at Aerospace Center.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 11, 1995, pp. 1b, 7b.
“Demolition Looms for Aerospace Center.” KATV, June 13, 2014. http://katv.com/archive/demolition-looms-for-aerospace-education-center (accessed May 3, 2023).
Williams, L. Lamor. “LR Aerospace Center Reaches End of Line.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. December 29, 2010, pp. 1A, 8A.
Conor J. Hennelly
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Even though the Little Rock School District did not build a school there, somehow some Aerospace influence must have trickled down to one of our schools. I teach at Cloverdale Middle School,which once was called Cloverdale Aerospace Technology Charter School.