The simulated space missions at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska may not offer the excitement of stomach-churning virtual motion like Disneyland's Star Wars space ride. But then, visitors to Disneyland don't get to fly the Millennium Falcon.
At the Challenger Center, participants do it all -- from navigating a course to taking material samples and from operating robotic arms to building and launching a probe.
"It's probably the closest thing to a real space mission experience that I'll ever enjoy," said Les Horn, a Tigard, Ore., resident who visited the Monday mission this week with his wife. "It's just tremendous."
"It's so cool," added Dana Woodard, a Kenai resident who works at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
"What a tool," said Florida resident Dorothy McLaughlin.
The center is one of 42 Challenger Learning Centers in the world. Most are in the United States, though a few are located in Canada and England.
The Challenger Learning Center program was started in Houston as a memorial to the astronauts and teacher who died when NASA's 1986 Challenger shuttle exploded during take-off.
"The family and friends of the crew were not satisfied with a normal memorial," mission commander Dori Breese told participants at Monday's Rendezvous with a Comet project at the Kenai center. "They wanted something to encourage others to continue exploring so that their loss was not in vain."
The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, funded mostly by a grant from NASA, is primarily designed to teach middle school students about the space program, as well as math, science, technology, teamwork, problem solving and communication skills.
In school missions, students spend four to six weeks preparing in the classroom, then come to the center for a Rendezvous with a Comet or Voyage to Mars mission.
For those who cannot travel to the center, e-missions over the Internet and outreach programs, in which Challenger staff visit remote schools, provide similar opportunities.
The center also hosts community missions, such as the one Monday, opening the program to people of all ages, and corporate missions are available to enhance creativity and team building.
The center also hosts a number of camps, covering topics such as rockets, robotics and space-travel training.
The center is at 9711 Kenai Spur Highway next to Kenai Central High School.
More information is available at www.akchallenger.org or by calling 283-2000 locally or toll-free (877) 34-SPACE.
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