"Get ready to go to space."
About 15 space travelers line up at the door to the space station, don their space jackets and march down a dark, twisting hallway. They step through the air-lock chamber and come out the other side -- in space. They take their places at the various terminals in the station and get to work.
Back on Earth, another 15 people -- a counterpart for each space team member -- settle into mission control, lining rows of computer screens to provide instruction and analyze data for the space workers.
No, there is no shuttle launch this week -- but the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska's Monday mission offers a close replica. About 30 people -- both residents and visitors ranging in age from 8 to near 60 -- try their hands at being astronauts for a day. The group spends 3 1/2 hours at the center, learning the history of space exploration and the Challenger Learning Center, practicing team-building exercises and finally setting off for space.
Their mission: to rendezvous with a comet, test space materials, build a probe and launch it into the comet's atmosphere.
"Think of this as a challenge."
No mission starts in space, or even with liftoff. Training comes first, even in a simulated mission at the Challenger Center.
Long before the teams can take positions in the space station or mission control, they have to learn to work together.
After all, that's really what the center is about, says mission commander Rob Carrillo.
"It's not math and science -- we do that, but that's like following a cake recipe," he says. "It's all in what you write, what you say. Communication is the top priority."
"No matter what area you go into, you're going to have to work with people. You've got to be good at it or you don't have a job," Carrillo says.
"It's just more evident in the space program, where you stick people up in space in tin cans."
Monday's participants start their afternoon exercises with team-building games.
In the first drill, groups of 10 people stand in circles and toss a ball to one another. The challenge is to make sure everyone touches the ball once, no one hands it to the person next to them and the ball gets back to where it started at the end.
As teams master the challenge, another ball is added, until five balls are flying across each circle at a time. The key is working out a flight and timing pattern -- together.
"You're air traffic controllers," Carrillo tells the laughing and sometimes frustrated participants. "The skies are too full."
Next, the participants break into teams of three, each assigned to a specific role: observer, communicator and assembler. The observer views a completed puzzle in a separate room and tells the communicator what it looks like.
The communicator takes the information back to the assembler, who has all the pieces to make an identical puzzle. The goal: to transfer information in order to put the puzzle together properly.
"This is the big test, to see how well you get information from room to room," Carrillo says. "That's what the simulator was built for."
"This is mission control."
Finally, the group is ready for their mission. Half heads to space and half to mission control, and both teams will have a chance to try both areas.
Each team is broken up into responsibility areas -- everyone has a job and a counterpart in the other team:
One communicator delivers voice messages through an intercom system, allowing the space station and mission control members to talk to one another.
One data person sends written messages via e-mail so the space station and mission control can share scientific information.
Two people in the space station build a probe to send to the comet. Two in mission control provide the specifications and instructions for assembly.
Two navigators on each team direct the space craft's path and observe the planets, comets and meteors around the craft.
Three scientists in the space station observe and study rocks and plants through isolation chambers, using robotic arms and glove boxes. The three in mission control analyze the data.
Another two scientists in the space station study materials through remote channels, using robotic controls to collect and observe materials they view over a video monitor. Their mission control counterparts also analyze data sent from the station.
A life support team maintains a proper atmosphere inside the station, making sure water and air quality with sustain life for their team. They are added by counterparts in mission control.
Medical staffers examine each space station team member, taking blood pressure and testing eye sight, and reporting back to the "doctors" in mission control.
Working together, the teams follow step-by-step instruction books to learn as much as possible and have a safe and successful mission.
"We have a problem."
Of course, every mission has its challenges and emergencies, and this is no exception.
The space shuttle's life support team has taken atmosphere readings as instructed and sent data to its mission control counterparts.
"Space center, this is mission control. Your humidity readings are way too high," the voice announces over the intercom system minutes later.
Red lights flash and sirens sound throughout the shuttle.
The mission control life support team works frantically to find the instructions for lowering humidity, then to pass the information on to the shuttle team. It takes quite some time, but finally the emergency is averted.
A little while later, loud bumping noises begin interrupting the intercom system.
Mission commander Dori Breese explains that meteors are showering the craft. Shields are raised, but to no avail. The meteors force an emergency evacuation -- providing a convenient time for teams to trade places.
With the first mission control team now in space, things don't go much smoother. Rather than a humidity problem, the second space team has an oxygen emergency.
According to the control screen, the team is down to three minutes of oxygen -- but the reserve system is activated just in time.
Rendezvous with a comet
Emergencies averted, the space shuttle finally meets up with a comet -- though not the one it had planned.
The original mission was to meet up with Comet Encke, but along the way, navigators discover an unknown body in the Leo constellation and determine it, too, is a comet. In the interest of adventure, the shuttle heads to the new body instead.
The space crew launches its probe and sits back to wait.
"10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 ... probe launched ... communication lost," a computerized voice announces.
"It may be too heavy," admits the probe assembly team.
The crew waits.
Communication is restored, but without visual images. Though the crews cannot see what is happening, the probe is successful in collecting data on the gasses in the comet's wake.
The space craft crew puts on special sunglasses and the lights go out. The team members look into the gas readings and identify the colors that appear in their glasses.
"Red, orange, yellow, dark green, green, indigo and purple," the crew announces to mission control.
Back on Earth, the report is quickly analyzed and the gas identified as nitrogen.
Mission complete, the astronauts return home and meet up with mission control to name the new body -- Comet McAuliffe for teacher Christa McAuliffe, who perished in the 1986 Challenger mission and in whose memory the Challenger Learning Center was founded.
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