"Ten, nine, eight, seven ..."
The space station crew clustered around the control console, eyes riveted to the status monitor, and began counting down for the launch of the space probe.
"... six, five, four ..."
The countdown stopped and the screen flashed a warning. A computerized check had detected an error in the probe assembly. At the same moment mission control radioed to report a glitch with the life-support system.
Student astronauts scrambled to their stations.
The junior high class from Cordova was one of two school groups "flying missions" on the first official day of operations for the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.
The center will host a full schedule of student visits and activities from now on, even though its official grand opening ceremony will be in July.
The $3.6 million space science education facility next to Kenai Central High School is in the final stages of construction, but the state-of-the-art simulators at its heart are fully operational. For the past couple of weeks, the staff have run training missions with guinea pig groups of project boosters and central peninsula students. But Monday's missions, with the Cordova class and a group of fifth-graders from Anchorage's Mountain View Elementary School, were the first official programs.
"For us, this is a major event," said Leroy Key, the teacher and schools' superintendent from Cordova who accompanied the 17 boys.
The students, in grades seven, eight and nine, are members of an elective class on aerospace science. They prepared for their trip to Kenai by studying space flight and even designed a patch for their mission. They raised funds through car washes, bake sales, their families and a grant from the Native Village of Eyak. Era Aviation arranged a special flight direct from Cordova to Kenai to help them, Key said.
To begin the mission, called "Rendezvous with a Comet," the Challenger center's Assistant Flight Director Rob Carrillo gave the students a preflight briefing. He reviewed the scientific basics, the job stations and the mission procedures.
The students divided into two groups. While one set headed into the adjacent terrestrial mission control room, the other donned vests with insignia and radiation monitor badges.
Navigation specialist Sean Beecher (foreground) prepared to launch the comet probe Monday at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. Behind him David Johannessen (left) and Brice Phillips (middle) worked on communications. The students from Cordova were in Kenai for the space education center's first official day of operations.
Photo by Jay Barrett
The space-bound students passed up a narrow zigzag hallway lit from below by fiber-optic lines that changed color, while a recorded rocket launch provided sound effects. The hallway ended at a rotating "airlock" doorway.
Passing through, the young mission specialists found themselves on board the mock space station and took up position at their previously assigned posts. Video monitor cameras and headsets linked the ground and space station crews.
While the communications and data specialists monitored information flow, most students in the station worked on a series of experiments.
For example, the remote specialist tested "meteorite" samples for magnetism and density while the isolation specialist manipulated robotic arms to retrieve plates from "outside" to test for micrometeoroid impacts.
Meanwhile, mission control worked with the space station crew to monitor the position and life-support systems. The probe team on the ground began directing its orbiting counterparts in assembling components.
The students' goal was to complete the probe and launch it in time to intercept the Comet Enke.
An alarm went off in the space station.
At mission control, all eyes turned to the monitors.
Flight Director Daniela Martian, supervising the space station, relayed her assessment.
"The clean room seems to have lost power," she said over the intercom. "Please stand by while we restore power."
Messages began flying back and forth between the two crews. Sensors reported solar flares.
The status monitor flashed the news that an unknown object had been sighted in Starfield C. The spacecraft began beaming down information on the find, such as an analysis of its visible spectrum.
"It could be Planet X!" Carrillo challenged the students.
Moments later, Martian ordered an "evacuation" of the space station. The students gathered in the briefing room for a midpoint assessment, then switched crews.
Mission control navigator Sean Beecher reported the readings on the object, and the class identified it as a previously undiscovered comet. By vote they dubbed it Comet Matt, after student Matt Jones who first sighted it. The students also voted to change plans and pursue the new comet rather than Enke.
The second crew, which previously had manned mission control, went to the space station, and students reported to their new posts to resume the work their colleagues had left unfinished.
Students who began the mission flustered or rowdy became so absorbed in their tasks that conversation ceased.
"We have 20 minutes until comet rendezvous time. You have 20 minutes to get your experiments done," Martian told them.
"We are happy to report that navigation has successfully triangulated the position of Comet Matt," she added.
The mission proceeded smoothly until the malfunction halted the countdown.
Probe crewmen Garrett Collins and Jordan Kompkoff hurried to the "clean room" and switched the pieces in question. Minutes later, the probe was launched as the students cheered.
Soon the telemetry screen was sending in enhanced color images of the comet.
Martian congratulated the students on a successful mission.
As the students returned to Earth, their chaperones made congratulatory comments of their own.
Key took Martian aside to express his appreciation for the space education center.
"This is outstanding," he told her.
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