Fifteen years ago today, seven astronauts lost their lives in the tragic explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. It was one of those milestone moments in our collective cultural consciousness, the kind that leaves an indelible memory of where we were, what we were doing, when we heard the terrible news that day.
Aside from the human tragedy, the episode marked the bottoming out of the U.S. space program. Even as eulogies were being read for the seven crew members, many wondered if the event also marked the symbolic death of NASA and all the hopes, dreams and visions for the future of American space exploration
Whatever end the shuttle explosion did mark, it also marked a beginning. The families of the astronauts who died in that 25th space shuttle mission turned their loss into national gain through the Challenger learning centers that sprung up around the country. The first Challenger Center opened in September 1987 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Since then, 48 additional centers have opened, including the one in Kenai.
The centers simulate space missions that give students hands-on experience with math, science and technology and encourage students to pursue careers in those fields. Beyond teaching students academic skills, Challenger Center missions also teach students life skills such as communication and teamwork. As such, the centers represent a different kind of vision, as well as a living memorial to the Challenger astronauts and the turning of tragedy to success.
In Alaska, that success takes the form of an ongoing, long-term project. As Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer noted in her address at the center's groundbreaking in July 1999, "It's the beginning of an opportunity for all Alaska children. ... It's for Alaska. It's for our children."
Since flying its first mission in April, the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska has hosted more than 5,000 schoolchildren from all over the state. By emphasizing the fun in learning about math and science, the center sparks interest in careers in technology.
With its soon-to-be-operational distance learning program, the center will be able to reach out to villages all over the state, broadening the educational base of the traditional classroom. By tying its programs to opportunities at the University of Alaska, the center is on the leading edge of a movement to keep the state's best and brightest students at home.
"We've suffered from a technology drain," said Kenai Mayor John Williams, who serves as the president of the center's board of directors and was instrumental in bringing the Challenger Learning Center to Kenai. "We've established this institution for kids. We need to seek ways for our students to stay here in Alaska."
In its short life, the center already has had a huge impact, Williams said. In recent weeks, two major federal grants have been landed, as well as substantial private industry contributions. Now, the center is gearing up to enter its second phase through projects such as the construction of housing quarters designed like space ships and the introduction of new computer technology. Both will enable the center to launch week-long space camps in the summer and overnight immersion training for students.
"It's all about the long-term future of Alaska," Williams noted.
On this 15th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, we salute the vision of the program in general and of the local initiative in particular. What seemed like a tragic end in 1986 has, indeed, been a beginning. The shuttle program, now being used to help piece together the international space station, recently flew its 100th mission. While back on Earth, Challenger learning centers like the one in Kenai continue to encourage young minds to reach for the stars.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.