We Blast Off Into Space: From Mission Control to the Space Station at the Challenger Learning Centre

One day, Bobz, Dana and I visited the Challenger Learning Centre for Space Science Education on the campus of the Hazard Community and Technical College in eastern Kentucky.

Welcome to the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky!

This is one of 48 such centres around the United States. They were created by the families of the seven astronauts who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart about 73 seconds into the flight on 28 January 1986 (Wikipedia), as a kind of living memorial. The seven astronauts on board were commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, pilot Michael J Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnick, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis and teacher in space participant Christa McAuliffe.

A painting of the seven astronauts: from left to right - El Onizuka, Ron McNair, Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judy Resnick, Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe

In the picture above, you can see the logo of the Challenger Centres: The blue ball represents the Earth, while the white outline is the atmosphere; the space shuttle is flying off into space, and the seven stars represent the seven astronauts who died.

We felt honoured to be given a tour of the Challenger Learning Centre in Hazard by Tom Cravens himself; he is the Director of the Centre. He explained that the aim of the centre is to provide a positive learning experience for school children in Grades 6 to 8, exposing them to practical applications of science, mathematics and technology, all in the context of space exploration.

The children embark on simulated space missions, in programmes that carry such exciting names as “Rendezvous with a Comet”, “Return to the Moon” and “Voyage to Mars”.

Are you ready for a space adventure?!

“Don’t expect to see desks, chalkboards, or encyclopedias when you visit the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky. Instead, you will use workstations to do experiments, computers to do research, be an astronaut in the space station, be a technician in mission control, communicate with your teammates using a headset, and use video panels to monitor your classmate’s activities while they work up in space. Sound like fun? You bet it is!” (CLCKY website)

Two bus-loads of school children from a Kentucky school were visiting the Centre at the time we were given our tour, and so we saw a little of what goes on. The kids were divided into two main groups: the support team remained on Earth, manning the Mission Control Centre, while the astronauts ‘flew’ up to the Space Station (all simulated, of course! ;-)). Afterwards, they traded places.

Mission Control

The two groups were further broken down into smaller 2-3 person teams, with each team member given a specific task for which he or she was responsible. Learning to cooperate and work together as a team was essential for completing the 2.5 hour long mission:

“They become participants in a NASA team of scientists, engineers and technicians, all critical components to completing their successful space mission. During the mission participants must monitor and maintain the health of the astronauts and the environmental conditions aboard the space station, test solar array panels for damage and oxygen filters for radiation, collect data on meteors, plants, and water, learn to navigate in space, and build and launch a probe.” (CLCKY website)

Onboard the Space Station

We entered the Space Station through an ‘airlock’, and observed some of the young scientists conducting various experiments; they remained in constant communication with Mission Control, which monitored the experiments remotely, giving further instructions based on the feedback received from the Space Station. All the kids looked like they were having a lot of fun.

After our brief sojourn on the Space Station, we ‘flew back to Earth’ and listened in on some of the conversations at Mission Control.

The Mars Invasion project

“The simulators look and feel like real NASA machinery and are equipped with research computers, robots, remote gloveboxes, NASA star charts, video cameras and monitors.” (CLCKY website).

We were also shown around the Mars Invasion 2030 project. This is geared towards younger school children. The programme is titled “Coal Camp to Space Camp”, and it uses video, multimedia, written materials and eighteen hands-on work stations to explore what would happen if human beings would have to leave Earth and establish an outpost on Mars. The curriculum of this particular programme is based on the particular history of Kentucky, and specifically Central Appalachia, as a coal mining area. It is run together with CEDAR Inc:

The instruction: Use a computer to drive the Mars Rover

“Since mining is an integral part of our everyday life in Central Appalachia, and since much of the technology used to mine coal and other resources on Earth will be similar if not identical to the technology required to sustain life on Mars, the Challenger Learning Centre of Kentucky has developed a partnership with CEDAR (Coal Education Development and Resource) (website) to make mining technology and engineering a major focal point of the Mars Invasion 2030 curriculum.”  (Mars Invasion Brochure)

The Centre is also privileged to own a very special item: tiny slivers of the moon rock samples that were collected during the Apollo 11 mission (Wikipedia: Apollo 11) in July 1969, when US astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins flew to the Earth’s moon. When the lunar module, nicknamed the Eagle, landed on the moon, Armstrong uttered the well-known words: “The Eagle has landed.” And when he took his first steps on the moon during their EVA, he uttered the words that are among the most famous in the history of the world, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Wikipedia: soundfile).

The tiny slivers of moon rocks that were presented to the Commonwealth of Kentucky

Samples of moon rocks were collected during various lunar missions. The Nixon Administration gave 270 of Apollo 11 Moon Rocks and Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rocks to numerous heads of state on Earth, as well as to all the US states and various museums. Sadly, many of these have been lost or stolen (Wikipedia), and efforts are being made to track them down (BBC article; article on the Apollo 11 moon rocks; article on the Goodwill moonrocks). I was astounded to see that there is a lunar sample on display in the old Cape Colony Parliament Building in Cape Town!

It felt quite magical to be looking at a piece of the moon that had been brought back to Earth in July 1969, so close to the day of my birth.

I had thoroughly enjoyed our tour of this Centre. They made science, maths and technology education look like FUN! Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be sooo cool to be a kid again!

Thank you, Director Tom Cravens, for a wonderful and fascinating tour!

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10 thoughts on “We Blast Off Into Space: From Mission Control to the Space Station at the Challenger Learning Centre

  1. This looks like a fascinating place to visit. July 20, 1969 was my 12th birthday, believe it or not. You know, Reggie, visitors are going to search your website forevermore to discover travel tidbits like this!

    • I am so pleased you are also a July baby, Kathy! Yes, I would love it if people found ideas on my blog on nice places to visit and fun things to do! I wonder if there is a Challenger Learning Centre near you? Do you know?

      • LOL – well, I actually looked it up for you: There is, believe it or not, a Challenger Learning Centre at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum (here is the website link)! But I have been unable to calculate the distance, so perhaps you are right that it is more than 1000 miles!!

      • Even though Michigan “seems” near us…we’re actually 500 miles away from most places in Michigan. Haven’t been to Kalamazoo in oh-so-many-years, if ever. When we go “downstate” we travel to the eastern part of Michigan.

  2. Funny that we who live in the United States have to learn about the “Challenger Learning Centers” from a South African blogger! Very interesting post.
    I don’t know if there’s a Challenger center in S. California. I’ve been to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena which was also fascinating.

  3. I remember watching the shuttle disaster live on TV when I was 12 years old and not fully comprehending the tragedy that had just occurred!! How beautiful that their memory still lives on through fantastic centres like this; perfect for children to not only learn about space but develop personal skills throughout the challenge! x

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