City officials get 'spacey'

Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

The councils and administrations of the cities of Soldotna and Kenai set aside their gentle sister-city rivalry Friday night and got together for a little wine, a little cheese and a large meteor shower that threatened to send their space station crashing to earth.

No, the meteor shower wasn't the Perseids passing overhead, nor was the space station even off the ground, but to the city officials flying a mission at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, it was almost real.

"I think it was a lot more serious than we expected," said Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster. "And it was a lot different activity than we're used to doing.

"The way Daniela came running into the room saying she was in contact with the space station got everybody revved up."

Daniela Martian, flight director at the center, put the two groups through their paces before turning them loose on the million-plus-dollar simulators. She started the evening by telling the group the International Space Station called her to get help in repositioning its solar panels. She used that ruse as a thinly veiled excuse to have the city officials do some team-building exercises before the flight.

To start with, she had all 20 people stand on a 10-by-10-foot sheet and told them to turn it over without any of them touching the floor. After a few minutes of deciding if it was possible or not, the group did it in less than 10 minutes.

Then Martian put one half of the people in one room and the others in another room, with each on headsets. Individuals in one group looked at a video picture of a clay figure and had to describe it to the person on the other end of the intercom, who then tried to build what was described to them. The level of success varied greatly.

The clay figurine described by Soldotna City Council member Jane Stein and built by Kenai Mayor John Williams was elaborate and detailed, even if it bore little resemblance to the original.

Once the team-building was completed, the officials split up among city lines and proceeded to fly a mission to land a probe on a comet.

Soldotna blasted off into the station first, to navigate and start construction of the space probe, with Kenai acting as mission control. After a meteor storm rocked the space station, forcing its evacuation, both groups debriefed each other and made plans to abandon the first comet for a new, undiscovered comet that was just sighted. The groups elected to name the comet "Solken," after the two cities.

Then, Kenai took to the space station to complete the mission, as Soldotna staffed mission control.

Williams came up with the idea of a flight with the Soldotna council and administration earlier this year.

"We're always looking for ways to keep closer communication with Soldotna," Williams said. "We're always meeting each other at (Alaska Municipal League) functions, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet here at home and get to know each other better.

"I think everyone learned a lot from it."

Both mayors said they would love to do it again and have made plans for another mission next year.

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