A cheer goes up at the Challenger Center as the crew of Discovery unfurls the Alaska flag 240 miles above the planet earth.
December 21st was a historic day for Alaska and the staff at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai. For the students who were selected to participate in the live video conference with the crew of the orbiting Discovery shuttle it was a day they’ll tell their grandchildren about someday as that generation travels to Mars and beyond. The Discovery was piloted by Alaska’s first man in space Bill Oefelein, known among his fellow astronauts as “Billy-O.” It was the day before Discovery would return to earth and in a brief live question and answer session CNN and ABC news reporters seemed fixated on the weather problems developing at the mission’s potential landing sites, both networks asking identical questions and STS-166 crew members repeating the same answers. However, when the Johnson Space Center announced the networks time was up and switched to Kenai, the mood changed and an Alaskan flag was unfurled behind the crew, “It was one of those emotional moments that thrilled us all and put lumps in everyone’s throats, it was awesome,” said KPBSD Supt. Donna Peterson. A cheer went up from the capacity group of school children in attendance and a beaming Billy-O acknowledged the ovation.
By way of a live video downlink from the Shuttle Discovery, elementary- and middle-school students then had the opportunity to ask their pre-approved questions of the space shuttle’s crew, including pilot Bill Oefelein, of Anchorage. “What’s the best thing about flying the space shuttle and about being in space?” asked Kenai Middle School student Matthew Morse. “The views are spectacular,” said Oefelein. “I’ve seen the lights of the cities and thunderstorms,” he said, adding he also is enjoying working with the team of astronauts on the repair mission to the space station. “A couple days ago, I could see all the way from Kodiak to Wasilla,” Billy-O told the students.
At Sterling Elementary School students throughout were asked to submit questions which were then submitted to the Challenger Center’s Lead Flight Director Leah Eskelin, “From our school 6th grader Denali Goodwill and 2nd grader Brent Shelton were selected, but all our students have been preparing for this event for weeks. As soon as we heard of the opportunity we decided to seize on it to provide some additional relevance to the academic rigor that we focus on in our school,” Sterling Elementary principal Christine Ermold told the Dispatch, “Our students spent a great deal of time choosing questions that they couldn’t just get the answers to by going on line or to the NASA website. Through the kid’s questions we heard the astronauts talk about teamwork, how what they are doing impacts their families and how relevant all the scientific studies that they are doing in space are to us, questions that only the astronauts themselves could answer. It was so exciting for the kids to really get it and to see how what they are learning in school applies to real life,” added Ermold.
“It was so cool to talk to an astronaut while he was in space,” said IDEA home school student Rachel Mackie, “and not just to see them but to learn about the things they do while on their mission, we were a pretty lucky bunch of kids, and they were talking directly to us, it was pretty amazing.”
Duane Bannock was a Kenai City Council member when the Challenger Learning Center was just a vision. Bannock, now the Director of the Department of Motor Vehicles, was on hand for the videoconference and commented, “Back then we couldn’t even envision something as good as this happening, I just can’t explain how good a feeling this really is to witness this today. It was such a touch of class when Billy-O rolled out the Alaska flag, my skin had goose bumps all over it. What a great day for Alaska,” said Bannock. The Alaska Challenger Learning Center is the 39th of 52 centers in the Challenger Learning Center for Space Education international network. The network was started in 1986 by the families of the astronauts lost in the Challenger 51-L mission. The downlink from the Discovery mission was part of NASA’s continuing efforts to engage and inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. To learn about future opportunities at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska call 283-2000 or go to www.akchallenger.org.
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