Education facility ready to launch Kenai space age

Center's final countdown on

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2000

"Beam me up, Scotty," Flight Director Daniela Martian said into a microphone Friday in the mission control center of the new Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

Although not beamed in the Star Trek fashion, Martian already has been transported farther from Earth than most people get.

The Kenai space science education center does not open for two weeks, but technicians declared the space simulators at its heart fully operational and all systems go for launching the facility.

Representatives from the center's staff, the board of directors, the simulator's manufacturer and the national Challenger Center for Space Science Education gathered to celebrate the final systems check on the million-dollar array of state-of-the-art computers, video networks and science gadgets.

Construction crews are still hard at work finishing up the interior. Cables dangle from panels, and Sheetrock dust powders the walls.

But walking through a few doors transports a visitor out of this world.

An entry marked "airlock" opens into a gleaming space station with walls of display screens, nooks for medical and life support functions, isolation chambers housing robotic arms and consoles for command and control functions.


The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska's space station room receives a shakedown Friday morning.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

At the flip of a few switches, a red light flashed and an ominous electronic voice intoned, "Danger! Danger!"

The adults were having as much fun as any group of children would.

Assistant Flight Director Rob Carrillo, formerly with The Imaginarium in Anchorage, looked over a space probe assembly.

"Look at those lights," he said. "The kids are going to go nuts with this stuff."

The fun gizmos are part of a sophisticated simulation developed by the national organization and built by Design and Production Inc. in Virginia.

Martian and board member Pat Dye traveled to Virginia in February to examine the system in the shop before it was shipped north. The equipment arrived in Kenai March 13 with a crew of five technicians who reassembled and installed it at the site.

Technicians from the Challenger organization's network support office in Kansas City also came to town to answer questions and train the staff.

Martian, Carrillo and a third assistant flight director, who will be hired soon, will take board members and sponsors through a few shakedown runs over the next two weeks to familiarize themselves with the operations.

Later, Martian, sitting cross-legged on the bare floor of her future office, said she and her assistants have countless details to attend to before they welcome their first school groups April 10.

The official dedication ceremony will be in early July, but the date has not yet been set.

"The stress level goes up," she said. "But so does the excitement."

Most visitors will come to the center for group "missions" planned in advance. School classes and adult teams will receive training ahead of time to prepare them for the experience of a typical multimedia simulation, which lasts about two-and-a-half hours.

"We have 84 missions booked between now and the end of June," Martian said.

People who drop by the center without reserving a slot on a mission can watch the action from the ubiquitous video monitors and, when the center becomes fully operational, take part in briefer, less formal missions.

The center also plans to start a summer science camp and an online distance delivery unit for remote schools.

For now, everyone is focused on the final countdown to the first official mission.

Board member Ginger Steffy said the construction and fund raising have progressed smoothly, and all involved are enthused to be so close to their goal.

"So far we are on schedule," she said. "Everything is going well."

Pam Peterson, the western regional director for the national Challenger Center for Space Science Education, was on hand to shepherd the team through the final preparations and share their triumph.

Peterson gave Martian and Car-rillo, who dubbed her "Challenger Mom," little Beanie astronauts, noting that they, too, are now simulated space voyagers.

Now that the space station and mission control center are fully operational, Peterson said, the parent organization considers the Kenai center to be an official member of the international Challenger network of 38 other space science education centers memorializing the astronauts killed in the 1986 shuttle explosion.

"We have successfully completed Challenger Learning Center number 39," she told the group.

Martian and the others were beaming -- even without Scotty.

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