Sen. Stevens to give keynote address at Friday grand opening ceremony

Challenger center gets official liftoff

Posted: Thursday, July 06, 2000

Kenai is counting down the final minutes to the official "launch ceremony" Friday for the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

Astronauts, officials, school children and others involved in the project will join the public in celebrating the completion of the state-of-the-art space science education building next to the Kenai Spur Highway. Sen. Ted Stevens will be the keynote speaker.

In addition to the dedication, the event includes fun activities for all ages on the theme of space exploration. The festivities will begin at 2 p.m. outside at the site next door to Kenai Central High School.

"The goal is to have a lot of things to look at," said Jill Lipka, a member of the center's board of directors who is working on planning the event.

Rockets, robots, hands-on science activities, music, refreshments and more will be included. People will be able to speak with astronauts and get their autographs. The curious will have a chance to check out the effects of low gravity in the whirling Orbitron ride.

The center's staff and volunteers have been having fun unpacking items the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent for the occasion, she said.

NASA goodies include a detailed model of a space shuttle, a sample of the sleeping bags used in space and a complete small-sized space suit mock-up students can try on.

Rob Carrillo, one of the center's assistant flight directors, will lead a participatory science fair for students.

"He's like a mad science tinkerer for kids," Lipka said.

The Air Force Alaska Brass Quintet and singer Sgt. Gavin Rueb will provide live musical entertainment.

In addition, ham radio operators will have equipment on hand to speak to people around the world.

The dedication ceremony will begin at 2:30 p.m. at the same location. Children will be able to continue festival activities while adults listen to the speakers. Tents will provide insurance against inclement weather.

Stevens will speak, and the building that houses the center will be named the Ted and Catherine Stevens Center for Science and Technology in honor of the senator's role in securing the principal funding to realize the $4.2 million project. His wife also will attend.

Special guests will be Cheryl McNair and Jane Smith Wolcott, whose husbands were killed in the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Retired astronauts Joe Allen and Norm Thagard will attend, as will Bill Oefelein, an Alaskan who is training to be an astronaut on the space station.

Lipka praised Oefelein as a personable and talented man who goes out of his way to share his enthusiasm for space with young people.

Other guests expected to attend the dedication ceremonies include Rep. Don Young; Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer; Kenai Mayor John Williams; Walter J. Hickel, former governor of Alaska; Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; Mark Hamilton, president of the University of Alaska; Richard Campbell, president of BP Exploration; Carl Reed, general manager of AT&T Wireless Services; Donald G. James, from the NASA Ames Research Center; Vance Ablott, president of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education; and Carole Coleman, executive vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University.

Grace Corrigan, mother of teacher-astronaut Christa McAulif-fe, is visiting the Kenai Peninsula today to attend the center with Girl Scouts. She will be unable to attend the opening because of a previous scheduling conflict.

After Friday's ribbon cutting, people will be invited inside the building to tour the simulators and speak with students about their experiences with the center's education programs. The center began programs, called missions, in April.

The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska is part of a nationwide network of 39 Challenger Learning Centers founded to honor the memory of the astronauts killed in the 1986 shuttle disaster.

Lipka said the adults are as inspired as the children about the new high-tech education facility.

As an adult, she reflects back on the defining moments of her life, she said, and has spoken to others who recall when they caught the bug to pursue a lifelong vocation such as science.

"I hope this center will plant the seed for those defining moments for these children," she said.

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