Fifteen years ago the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, claiming the lives of its seven crew members in front of millions of viewers who were watching the televised launch.
Today, the spirit of those lost crew members lives on in the minds of children who weren’t even born in 1986.
An educational memorial
The Challenger Learning Center Network lets students learn firsthand what’s involved on a space mission. "It all started back in 1986, when the Challenger accident occurred," says Richard Borakove, director of the Lower Hudson Valley Challenger Center, the newest of the centers in the U.S. "After everyone was killed on board the spacecraft, the families got together and…they really wanted more than just a memorial built in Arlington cemetery. They wanted a living memorial in the form of a space science education center."Not intended as museums for the general public, the centers are available for use by teachers and their classes from area schools. Each center has a two-room simulator with a space station and a mission control room, where students take turns performing the tasks involved in a real space mission. But the experience begins well before they set foot inside one of the centers. Teachers participate in a one-day training program and return to the classroom with materials to help prepare their students for their mission.
Today there are more than 50 Challenger centers around the country, with additional ones in Canada and the U.K. And they aren’t just amusement parks, says Borakove. "This center is designed by NASA, the equipment was installed by NASA people and built by NASA, the entire curriculum here with the students was written by NASA," he says. The centers are privately funded, however.
When they visit, students fly "mission scenarios" designed by NASA that incorporate elements from actual space programs. At the Hudson Valley Challenger Center, for example, there are two mission scenarios. In "Return to the Moon," students launch a spacecraft, leave the Earth’s orbit, build a probe on board the spacecraft, and then launch the probe to the surface of the moon. They use the probe to collect data which they analyze to determine where they should land the spacecraft on the moon’s surface.
In "Voyage to Mars," a team on Mars and a team on a spacecraft land the spacecraft on Mars so that the colonists can return to Earth. The students also build probes to explore Mars’ two moons. Another scenario involving the International Space Station is in the planning stages.
Borakove calls the simulator an advanced science lab, where students do chemistry, physics, biology and math to make calculations and plan coordinates. They learn how difficult navigation is, for example, by actually doing it.
"We are trying to foster long term interest in terms of technology, science, math," says Borakove. "We want the kids to be aware that technology plays an important role in their futurenot necessarily to be an astronaut in space or to go into rocketry, but to any job they’re in."
The response to the centers has been enthusiastic. "We can’t get them to leave, that’s the general reaction," says Borakove. "When they come here to fly a mission, our biggest problem is telling them the mission is over because they’re so excited about what they’re doing."
Students remain interested in space even when they go back to the classroom. "This gets the children actively involved in it," says Therese Kelly, a teacher at New City Elementary School in Rockland County, NY. "They come in with articles about itthe new space probes that will be going to Mars in the next couple of years, the International Space Station. All of these wonderful activities now have become more meaningful in their lives because of the program."
If planning and executing a space mission seems a far cry from traditional education, it may not seem so unusual to your kids. "They have been born into a world we only dreamed about or looked upon as science fiction when we were young," says Borakove.
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Presidential Commision Report on the Challenger Accident
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