Geotimes
Geoscience Education & Outreach
Space-Based Teamplay
Jan Childress

As they beamed up to the Mars Transport Vehicle (MTV) that would carry them to the Red Planet, the crew of explorers — seventh graders from Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax, Va. — made their first observation. The red strobe lights flashing from floor to ceiling in the darkened chamber were awesome. "Yeahhhh!" "Cool, man!"

A voice on an overhead speaker cut through the chorus of giggles: "On behalf of all of us at ground control, we wish you great success on your mission."

"Initiate air lock sequence," ordered their "commander," George Kasunich, pushing open a door and motioning his crew into a brilliantly lit, all-white chamber. The young astronauts stepped inside the MTV, their Earth-chatter silenced as they took in banks of glass cases, closed-circuit TV screens and a dizzying array of knobs, levers and keyboards. All eyes fixed intently on Kasunich as he issued instructions and swiftly moved crewmembers to their stations.

Led by teacher Heather Graham (standing), students at Luther Jackson Middle School communicate from Mission Control with their fellow astronauts on a "Voyage to Mars," one of three simulated spaceflight missions at the Challenger Learning Center in Alexandria, Va.

In reality, the students were at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va., where Kasunich, a teacher on the center's staff, was guiding them on a mission called "Voyage to Mars," one of three simulated flights into space offered to local schools. The Alexandria center is headquarters for a network of identical facilities called Challenger Learning Centers (CLCs), which have redefined science field trips for millions of students over the past 17 years. The centers are a living memorial to the shuttle, Challenger, which exploded moments after liftoff in January 1986, killing all seven crewmembers, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. As she prepared the lessons that she would deliver from inside the shuttle, McAuliffe radiated the determination and excitement of a true explorer. In the months following the disaster, the families of the lost crew knew that they wanted to keep the idea of Challenger's classroom in space alive. McAuliffe had captured the interest of millions of students and teachers, who followed the adventures of the entire crew as they went through simulated flight training routines in Houston. Such simulated missions, they thought, could continue to draw students toward space exploration, as well as other science and technology-based careers. So the families established the CLC network, an international nonprofit organization, in partnership with NASA and other organizations.

In 1987, the first center opened in Houston, and then in 1999, headquarters shifted to Alexandria, outside the nation's capital. Over the years, the centers have developed a variety of award-winning classroom simulations and supplementary educational materials for K-12 grade levels. They also provide long-distance learning programs for those in geographically remote areas and community programs for non-school groups. The Alexandria center offers three simulated missions for grades 5-10: "Return to the Moon," "Rendezvous with a Comet" and "Voyage to Mars."

Preflight

Each spring, the Alexandria center notifies local schools of the mission schedule for the upcoming academic year. With only two "flights" per day, the year's schedule is booked almost at once. Planning takes considerable organization and coordination among the math, science, history and English faculty, says science teacher Priscilla Baetcke at Luther Jackson Middle School, which sends an entire grade level to the center. Teachers must attend a training workshop where they receive preparatory materials for classroom use. This training is essential, Kasunich says. "The more teachers can prepare their classes beforehand, the more their students will accomplish during the visit."

Last fall, the Luther Jackson Middle School's 130 seventh graders flew four "Voyage to Mars" missions over a two-day period. With NASA's real-life robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched on journeys to the Red Planet, the teachers found many opportunities to mix actual news events, NASA bulletins and the CLC materials into classroom lessons. Baetcke's science classes researched Mars' surface and atmospheric characteristics and its place in the Solar System. Just before their visit, they focused on cratering. The faculty also filled out "crew manifests," assigning students to eight teams that would navigate the space ship, build and launch a probe to one of Mars' moons, conduct research or communicate with Mission Control. Teachers had been given suggested guidelines to follow in making their assignments. Students strong in math, for example, were the best choices for the NAV (navigation) and PROBE teams, as they would calculate the trajectories that sent the MTV and its probe into orbits around the planet and one of its moons, respectively. Four other teams would analyze rock and soil samples, monitor the physical health of crew members, track meteoroids that might threaten the journey, and run tests to safeguard the cabin's interior environment. They would relay the findings to their counterparts at Mission Control via the DATA and COM (communication) teams.

Up and away

When they arrived at the center, half of the class went to the Mars Transport Vehicle and the other half was assigned to Mission Control, operating in a classroom-sized replica of the Johnson Space Center's control room in Houston. Midway through the mission, they switched places. Inside the MTV, Kasunich moved from group to group, supervising progress through the task books that each team uses to complete assignments. After 40 minutes, he ordered everyone to gather around the NAV team's computer. "We are preparing to enter Mars' orbit," he announced. "Let's see if NAV has set the thrusters at the proper angle." Everyone counted down, "5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … blastoff!" The overhead TV monitor showed the MTV zooming toward the Red Planet. Everyone cheered. NAV had crunched the right numbers! No deep-space oblivion for these astronauts.

At their station, the REMOTE team had learned how to operate a robotic arm and had selected several rock samples. After comparing the samples with Earth rocks to determine color, luster and magnetic qualities, they confirmed their findings with Mission Control.

Back to Earth

Both crews came together in the orientation room, with pictures of the Challenger and Columbia crews on the walls, for their final briefing.

"Who wants to be an astronaut?" Kasunich asked. A few hands shot up.

"Who want to be scientists or engineers?" More hands.

"What do you have to study?" "Math and science," they answered.

Perhaps, though, the most important lesson they had learned that morning was the value of teamwork. To successfully complete their mission, all had followed very specific protocols of inquiry and communication. The entire CLC concept is built on teamwork. Partnerships with NASA and other groups turned the dream of Challenger's families into reality, and partnerships keep the network operating and growing. Communities work together for two to three years to bring a center into their area, an endeavor coordinated through CLC headquarters with support from local businesses, governments and nonprofit groups. Many schools rely on outside financial aid to pay for the costs of mission flights, which vary from center to center. Luther Jackson Middle School's missions cost $425 each, funded by the Exxon Mobil Corporation, which supports similar missions for five other schools.

The popularity of the CLCs is a convincing example of the nation's continuing fascination with space. Just weeks after the Columbia tragedy, a year ago this month, a center opened in Tallahassee, Fla., followed by four other openings in 2003.

This month, another center opens in Decatur, Ind., bringing the total to 52, including one each in Canada and Great Britain. Five more will join the network next year.

"I touch the future," Christa McAuliffe once said. "I teach." The 400,000 schoolchildren who visit a CLC each year had not been born when she took off into space, but she and her fellow crewmembers are touching them. Some may grow up to be astronauts and others may become scientists and engineers at Mission Control.

During two intense and fascinating hours at a CLC, they all discover where the journey to those new frontiers begins.


Childress, former managing editor of Geotimes, is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

Visit the Challenger Learning Center website, www.challenger.org, to learn more about its many programs for K-12 students and nonschool groups.

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