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Virtual space tourism opening in 2022 at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium

Sher Stine and her children, Jack, left, Max and Ashlyn, check out the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium’s Rio Tinto Kennecott Plaza in Draper on July 2, 2020. In 2022, the structure will serve as a metaphorical spaceship to transport guests to a variety of virtual worlds, including outer space. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

DRAPER — Next year, aquarium visitors will be able to join in the recent wave of space tourism — at least virtually.

The gargantuan, alien-looking metal structure owned by Loveland Living Planet Aquarium will soon serve as a spaceship to transport guests to a variety of virtual worlds, including outer space.

The aquarium is combining virtual reality and mixed reality technology to send explorers to virtual destinations like the rainforest, the deep sea, the center of the earth, into a volcano, inside the human cell, prehistoric ages and “just about anywhere else you want to go,” announced aquarium staff in a press release.

The virtual reality experience will be located underground, beneath the 165-ft-tall, 190-ton steel stage built in 2009 for U2’s 360° Tour. Bono referred to the structure, billed as the largest stage ever built, as the “Space Station.” The more common nickname for the structure, now on the aquarium’s Rio Tinto Kennecott Plaza, is “the Claw,” but the aquarium has renamed it the Ecosystem Exploration Craft Observatory, or EECO for short, and it has become a high-tech instruction center focused on the environment.

Brent Andersen first saw the Claw in Barcelona, Spain, during U2’s tour and was in awe. Rather than allowing this much steel to enter the atmosphere when the tour ended in 2011, the aquarium founder and CEO decided to buy it, transport it to Utah and reuse it in accordance with the aquarium’s mission to help the environment and make it a permanent landmark outside the aquarium in Draper, preventing 760,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

“Since most of us will never get to travel to Antarctica, the Sahara Desert, or the Great Barrier Reef, this will allow people to get a glimpse of life in those places. I’m excited to be a supporter of this endeavor and help create a new way to experience our planet,” said Jeff Flamm, Flamm Family Foundation, which provided a large donation for the recent development.

These simulated missions have been in the works since 2018 when the Science Learning Campus expansion was first announced. At the time of that announcement, Andersen told the Deseret News that the plans first originated in 2014 when he and the other staff decided they wanted a learning center to expand their educational mission in a way that appealed to everyone — “whether they were 2 years old or 92 years old.”

According to aquarium officials, the entire Science Learning Campus will include an 80,000 square-foot learning center, which will contain a five-story Asian cloud forest habitat and endangered species conservation center, interactive science stations, new indoor and outdoor animal exhibits, laboratories, classrooms and a banquet and conference center.

“This will be an exciting way to teach people about our planet and how everything is interconnected. Using this kind of technology is exciting because we’ll never run out of places to explore,” Andersen said.

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