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Challenger crew lives on through inspired Colorado Springs students

January 21, 2016 Updated: January 28, 2016 at 8:35 am
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photo - Fourth graders from Foothills Elementary School sit in the "Launcher" as they begin their "Return to the Moon" mission Wednesday, January 20, 2016, at Challenger Learning Center. January 28, 2016 is the 30th Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Photo gallery at Gazette.com Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Fourth graders from Foothills Elementary School sit in the "Launcher" as they begin their "Return to the Moon" mission Wednesday, January 20, 2016, at Challenger Learning Center. January 28, 2016 is the 30th Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Photo gallery at Gazette.com Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

"Colorado Springs, we've had a problem."

Not an explosion, as Apollo 13 encountered in 1970, but rather a meteor shower. The noisy, chaotic event disrupted but did not prevent 30 fourth graders from Foothills Elementary School from completing their lunar touchdown Wednesday.

Divided into a mission control crew and a team of astronauts aboard a space station, the students worked feverishly to identify the minimal damage to their spacecraft, re-launch and successfully land on the moon.

"This is really cool. I like how we're learning about space. I would tell people you should definitely come here," said fourth grade student Kai Kessell, a member of the astronauts' navigation team.

Three decades have passed since the disaster of the Space Shuttle Challenger, but the mission lives on at the Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, where each year 20,000 students from near and far experience a taste of what it's like to work in the field of aerospace.

"The need to explore the outer fringes makes us something special as humans," said Rob Fredell, president and chief executive officer of the center. "When we stop exploring the earth, the ocean and space, we will have lost something as humans."

Located at 10215 Lexington Drive in Colorado Springs, the educational center is one of 44 such nonprofit organizations in the world that were established shortly after NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart during its 10th mission, on Jan. 28, 1986.

All seven crew members died, including the first school teacher to go into space, Christa McAuliffe. The teacher from New Hampshire had been selected to join the mission in order to teach lessons from space to children around the nation.

Three months after the tragedy, families of the crew members enacted plans to build the first Challenger Learning Center, in Houston.

"The team had talked about making science education more exciting," Fredell said, "and the families said, 'We don't want a granite memorial, we want a living memorial.'"

Over the past 30 years, 4.5 million children have flown in the kind of simulated space adventures that Foothills Elementary students participated in this week.

Mission trips to the moon, Mars or intercepting a comet are packed with all the star-power and excitement of a Disneyland ride but also sneak in science, technology, engineering and math instruction. Critical thinking, teamwork, leadership and how to react during times of stress or disappointment are other skills imparted.

"This is a classic example of taking something really bad and turning it into something really good," Fredell said. "We honor the lives of the astronauts and the sacrifice of the Challenger and the Columbia and Apollo 1 because they inspire us, and we take this as a chance to inspire our kids."

The local center opened in 2002 and resides in donated space from Academy School District 20, next to Challenger Middle School. The region's two largest school districts, Colorado Springs School District 11 and D-20, send every eighth grader to the center each year to fly simulator missions, and many other schools do on-site or remote electronic trips to space.

Local businesses, such as T. Rowe Price, sometimes sponsor classroom trips.

A $22,500 contribution from Lockheed Martin and help from a drama teacher at Coronado High School last summer resulted in the renovation of what's known as the briefing room. A NASA-like environment with a portal entryway, twinkly stars overhead and a giant mural of a launch set the scene. Children receive lab coats, vests, badges, assignments and information about their mission from a flight director.

The feel of hurtling through space is re-created with airlock doors, seats that vibrate, loud lift-off noises, communication devices, computers monitoring activity and work stations with tasks such as gathering and analyzing samples using a remote arm, checking for radiation levels and doing gravity experiments.

Depending on the grade level, some students use a 3-D printer to rebuild part of a probe that breaks, much like astronauts on a real space station.

Students usually think of a lone astronaut when they imagine space exploration, said Laura Schofield, who teaches at Foothills Elementary and accompanied the students to the center this week.

"It's so incredible for the kids to see how many different jobs there are and duties that need to be filled," she said. "It really takes a team."

Schofield said she hoped students return to the classroom with "a passion for science" and the desire to "search for more answers on their own."

Students seemed a little scared, excited and enthralled with the mission.

"This is a very fun experience," said 9-year-old Celia Hanna-Zelaya, who was working in the communications center aboard the spacecraft. "Everyone must work together for everything to work properly."

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