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Flight Director Merry Bartek gets a group of third graders from the Colorado Springs School ready to take a "flight" to the space station at the Challenger Learning Center on Wednesday, January 12, 2011. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

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Starting this fall, kids blasting off for space at the Challenger Learning Center of Colorado in Colorado Springs will do so from a galaxy-sized improved launch site.

One of the final donations to complete a new space science center, scheduled to open in August, is a $100,000 grant from philanthropic powerhouse El Pomar Foundation.

“We really believe that this new project is completely in line with what they (El Pomar) stand for in supporting southern Colorado and the whole community,” said Challenger Learning Center CEO Rob Fredell.

The learning center has, since 2002, provided hands-on space education and simulator missions from Challenger Middle School in Academy School District 20.

Now it’s moving to the new Center for Modern Learning to build its bigger space science center on the campus of Legacy Peak Elementary, also in Academy D-20. That school opened last semester in the Wolf Ranch neighborhood in northeastern Colorado Springs.

“We support all schools and all kids in southern Colorado,” Fredell said, “and we’re getting region-wide support for the building.”

The new $4 million space center has 10,500 square feet — nearly double the size of its existing facility. Another $2 million will be spent upgrading equipment, such as simulators and a planetarium.

Students “fly” simulated space missions in a Mission Control Center modeled after the one at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a Space Transporter and in a Spacecraft/Space Station simulator where experiments are performed.

“It will be a major improvement, which you’ll be able to see from the visual experience when you first walk through the door,” Fredell said.

One key benefit is the ability to offer all-day programs. “In the past, middle school teachers would bring a class in the morning, and a different class in the afternoon,” Fredell said.

In the new center, two classes may stay all-day, flying a mission in the morning, eating lunch, then seeing a planetarium show and doing a design-build activity in a Makerspace after that, he said.

Challenger Space Center will lease the space from D-20. In addition to the El Pomar Foundation grant, other major contributions have come from Jim and Cathy Mikkelson, who are funding the new planetarium, and Lockheed Martin, which is paying for equipment upgrades.

Air Academy Federal Credit Union is funding the Maker Space, and Ent Credit Union donated office furniture. Northrop Grumman is buying a new launcher, and Nor’Wood Foundation, Nunn Construction, the T Rowe Price Foundation and individuals across the region also have also contributed.

The building is completed, but assembling the planetarium, launcher and new mission control center, along with moving equipment, are scheduled for upcoming months.

The center is one of 50 in the nation created by the families of the seven crew members who died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. It will work with other educational nonprofits to open on Saturdays with programs for parents and children, Fredell said.

A formal grand opening will be held Sept. 29, the anniversary of the “Return to Flight” mission in 1988, two years after the disaster.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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