The flight vests were one-size-fits-all.
The view outside the spacecraft during launch was a video of a rocket taking off.
But to fourth-graders from Greenville and Sorento, it was the beginning of an out-of-this-world mission they had spent a month preparing for in their classrooms.
“A comet is like a dirty snowball,” Commander Erin Tyree said about their target in space. About 40 crew members, all 10 or 11 years old, giggled. The point, she said, is that as it travels through space, it collects all kinds of interesting debris that can be examined.
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“We are going to rendezvous with Comet Enke today. You’ll be trying to get a probe into the comet” as it approaches Earth’s orbit.
We are going to rendezvous with Comet Enke today. You’ll be trying to get a probe into the comet.
Commander Erin Tyree on the crew’s mission
First, they donned flight gear (with adjustable Velcro tabs) and security badges that designated six teams and their assignments: communications/data, navigation, probe, medical, isolation and life support, and remote work.
So began a daylong exploration of space at the Challenger Learning Center on the campus of McCluer South-Berkeley High School in Ferguson, Mo. The award-winning center was developed in 2003 as a creative environment where children immerse themselves in a problem-solving space mission. They use their math, science and communication skills.
Trained employees Tyree and Ron Schowalter, who were the “commanders” of this expedition, led youngsters through an examination of the comet, which was discovered in 1819.
Tasmyn Front, the center’s director, said the center works with schools to help prepare kids for a great experience, offering lessons for teachers to use.
“We’ve been working on this for 28 days in class,” said Greenville teacher Jackie Blumer. “We did something every day.”
That included helping students build teamwork from a distance by putting them in different rooms. When they talked without seeing each other, they could better verbalize what work needed to be done — a task she knew would be put to the test between her astronauts and ground crew.
The center is one of about 45 around the world that is part of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, an international non-profit organization founded in April 1986 by the families of the astronauts lost during the Challenger space shuttle mission.
Like a set out of a “Star Trek” movie, the 8,500-square-foot center is divided into work areas. Some have doors that look like metal ship hatches, an entrance that was a dark airlock that spins and red warning lights.
Orientation is in a vaulted pod-shaped room with a giant video screen.
Liftoff is in a spacecraft built like the interior of an airliner.
Commanders Tyree and Showalter made sure astronauts were secured in their seats. All aboard did a countdown to launch, then watched out the portal windows as a simulated separation and final docking with the Space Station took place.
Showalter took students through the airlock and welcomed them to the Space Station.
“On board the real Space Station, the astronauts would spend hours in the airlock,” he told them.
It was now CRT, Comet Rendezvous Time.
The large room was filled with work stations, isolation areas and computers where the crew would use their scientific and creative problem-solving skills to assemble and launch a probe to the comet.
Monitors glowed around them. Each had a task, a manual to follow and a computer to track their work. Some even got to wear lab coats.
One of Mia Ruble’s jobs as communications officer was to record on a video camera what each crew member’s job was.
“I check if there are insects in the plants on board,” said Lainey Hoyle, who manuveured a locked cylinder open while wearing giant protective gloves inside a Plexiglas box. She counted and recorded the bugs.
Life-support officer Ashton Walker sat at a computer and told Mia he was “sending a message to Mission Control about the humidity on the spacecraft right now.”
On the Space Station, the students handled an emergency when an unknown object was spotted by the navigation officer. Together, they successfully determined the gaseous makeup of Comet Enke. That part they got to do wearing special glasses.
On Earth, the head set-wearing crew in Mission Control, which closely resembles the real deal in Houston with long banks of monitors and video screens overhead, worked in tandem with the Space Station officers. They directed navigation, performed their own scientific experiments, including finding the density of a meteoroid, and warned the astronauts about problems.
In a classroom nearby, other students researched, funded and built their own mini construction paper rockets as part of a design competition workshop.
“Ready to launch in 30 seconds!” said Commander Robert Powell to the students in Sorento teacher Christina Pashia’s group. “Meet me at the door with rocket in hand.”
Luke Zykan, Sophie Krummel and Sophie Hulsebus tackled last-minute issues.
“We’re having trouble with the stabilizer parts,” said Sophie as they adjusted the struts.
It instills a love of, a passion for science and engineering. They feel like they are part of something.
Jackie Blumer on the Challenger lab experience
Teams gathered around the back of the center, each taking a turn with their commander’s help to fuel rockets with air pressure from a bicycle pump and blast off.
“Please don’t hit any airplanes,” Powell said with a grin as a jet flew toward nearby Lambert International Airport.
Cheers and moans went up as the paper rockets soared, some cork-screwing toward the green lawn, others flying high. Powell was in charge of marking where they landed.
“Now, we’ll go back inside, talk a little, make some repairs and come back out here for the final launch,” he said.
“We want it non-lopsided,” one of the boys said.
After a brown-bag lunch at picnic tables outside and a visit to the gift shop, it was time for a crew change and the students swapped roles.
Teacher Jackie Blumer and Christina Pashia said the trip was funded by field trip money and a grant.
“It’s a great experience for them,” said Jackie, who has been bringing students to the center since it opened. “It instills a love of, a passion for science and engineering. They feel like they are part of something.”
Challenger Learning Center
- What: 8,500 square-foot facility with space and science education and team-building programs available for students ages 10 and up. Programs include a two-hour simulated space mission featuring an orbiting space station, a Mission Control center and a rocket building workshop. Cost is $675 for up to 40 students.
- Summer camps: Five-day camps in astronaut training, an inventor’s workshop and aquatic robotics ($210-$350). See website for details.
- Where: 205 Brotherton Lane, St. Louis (1 mile north of I-70 off Florissant Road) on the campus of McCluer South-Berkeley High School
- Reservations: Required
- Contact: 314-521-6205, www.challengerstl.org
How it all began
On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members who had set out on a mission to broaden educational horizons and promote the advancement of scientific knowledge.
In the aftermath, shuttle crew family members were clear on one thing: no brick or mortar monument for these astronauts. Instead, they came up with an idea to create the world’s first interactive space science center where teachers and their students could experience a simulated space mission. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education was incorporated on April 24, 1986, with the first Challenger Learning Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 1988. There are now more than 45 centers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Seoul, South Korea.
The Ferguson location opened in the fall of 2003 on the campus of McCluer South-Berkeley High School.