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Hartford - The Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport is making a calculated trade-off as it launches a significant upgrade to its science education program for schoolchildren.
The 55-year-old museum is auctioning a massive bronze statue Friday to raise money to outfit and program a satellite the size of a milk carton attached to a NASA rocket beaming back data on space dust.
Deciding to sell the sculpture, "Torch Bearers" by Anna Hyatt Huntington, followed "huge discussion" among museum board members, said Board Chairman Joe D'Avanzo.
It's one of four such sculptures in the world.
"This is the most valuable piece we have," he said. "It was very contentious to get rid of this piece. It was gut-wrenching to make this decision."
The museum, which shifted its mission from art to science in the mid-1990s, had few financial choices as it sought to participate in the satellite program.
It receives most of its funding from private sources and obtains just $359,000 from the state this year. Endowments are "very small," D'Avanzo said.
The minimum auction bid is $325,000, but the museum hopes to raise as much as $400,000 or more.
Aviva Lehmann, director of New York's American Art at Heritage Auctions, which will sell the 15-foot statue, said it's the most significant artwork by Huntington, known for animal sculptures, to come to market.
"I've sold her work before, but nothing of this size and grandness," she said. "I've never seen a Huntington monument come up before in 15 years. They just don't pass hands that often."
The statue of a man handing a torch to another man reaching down while on a horse symbolizes the passing of the knowledge of civilization from one generation to the next.
It could be sold to another institution or to a Texas collector who expressed interest, Lehmann said. Moving the sculpture across the country could cost as much as $20,000, Lehmann said.
Huntington, who died in 1973 at age 97, offered the work as a gift to the museum, with $5,000 toward the cost of the base, to ensure a proper setting for her sculpture, according to Heritage Auctions. "Torch Bearers" was unveiled at the museum in 1963.
NASA's CubeSat Launch initiative puts so-called nanosatellites into orbit as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions. NASA touts the satellites as educational opportunities for students and teachers that promote instruction in science, technology, engineering and math.
The Discovery Museum's nanosatellite, costing $100,000 to $200,000, will be launched in 18 months to two years in a partnership with the University of Hawaii and University of Bridgeport.
The satellite will be programmed to capture small space debris analyzed by students in high-school and younger at the museum's Challenger Learning Center.
"We're building a mission control at the museum," said David Mestre, director of space science education at the museum.
"We're developing software for a kid to run a space program."