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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is stepping down. Dr. Deborah Barnhart has led the Rocket Center for the past nine years. “On behalf of the Alabama Space and Science Exhibit Commission, I want to say how grateful we are to Dr Barnhart for her strong leadership, creative vision, devoted service and unmatched legacy,” John Nerger, Chairman of ASSEC, said in a statement. “She has earned the respect and admiration of so many throughout the Tennessee Valley, the State of Alabama and across the country. Hers are difficult shoes to fill so we will work hard to identify and select a worthy successor.” The news was announced on Thursday. “The center is in extraordinarily great shape. We’re grateful for her service, and we want to honor her legacy,” Nerger said. Barnhart has been in charge of the Space and Rocket Center since 2011. Nerger says the move to step down was Barnhart’s decision. The commission met on Wednesday but he denies she was fired.   “We had other things to discuss but this news supplanted that,” Nerger said. Barnhart released a statement that reads: “It has been my honor and a pleasure to serve this institution and the State of Alabama. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the center of our community and the icon of our mutual achievement. Our work has influenced millions around the world to new personal heights. There is no more satisfying legacy than the accomplishments of our Space Camp alumni, the national pride we inspire in our visitors as they learn about the amazing work underway by Team Redstone.” Louie Ramirez, a long-time Center leader who has served as its Chief Financial Officer, will serve as interim CEO until Dr. Barnhart’s replacement is named. ASSEC has named Dr. Barnhart CEO Emeritus, and she will advise and support the recruitment and hiring of a new CEO, a process that is expected to take 60 to 90 days. Barnhart’s departure is effective December 31, 2019.