Challenger’s legacy lives on by inspiring the next generation

by Chris Bergin

22 years ago, shuttle Challenger was lost 73 seconds into first stage flight, when a failure of the O-ring seal on the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) led to the destruction of the orbiter, killing the crew of seven.

Whilst still grieving their loss, the families of the STS-51L mission decided to set up the Challenger Space (Learning) Centers, ensuring the spirit of exploration – which had cost their loved ones their lives – would live on in the generations to follow.

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The Challenger Center for Space Science Education was founded on April 24, 1986 – just three months after the disaster, immediately raising funds that included donations from shuttle contractors and even the then US vice president.

It has since grown into an international organization, based around a principle message that was carried into aboard by Christa McAuliffe – who was selected from among more than 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space.

22 years on, and McAuliffe’s dream of inspiring students via space exploration lives on, thanks to the work of the people like Denise Terpstra, Flight Director at the Challenger Space Center in Peoria, Arizona.

‘I feel by providing the students simple and basic opportunities to get involved with space flight – both manned and unmanned – we are giving them a good foundation at which they can begin their own exploration of space flight,’ noted Terpstra, ‘and perhaps getting some of them involved and interested in the space program.’

The Centers are hugely popular, providing students – and their parents/guardians alike – a classroom opportunity that is unique to their studies, whilst vital for their understanding of science, maths, technology and teamwork.

This comes via a variety of activities, including simulations of real life missions, where half of the students are assigned to Mission Control, while the others are transported to the International Space Station (ISS), before swapping roles halfway through. Many other space related activities are also available at the Centers.

Such fun activities also educates the students about the vast team that are involved with a real life mission, past just that of being an astronaut.

‘I sincerely hope that our Centers are inspiring students to think about joining NASA/USA (United Space Alliance), etc…when they are ready in their careers,’ added Terpstra.

‘I try and de-emphasize the astronaut career and encourage our students that there are so many other fields that they can study and enjoy, as well as work for NASA. You do not need to be an astronaut to work for NASA. I think this helps the students feel that there is a possibility that they too could work for one of these contractors/agencies.’

‘Several weeks ago, I had a young lady mention to me that she wanted to work for NASA but she wanted to study nutrition in college and have that become her career focus. We sat down for a few minutes and talked about how she can work for NASA or one of the other contractors that is directly tied in with NASA and work in the nutrition field that she was so interested in.

‘She was truly thrilled that there was a possibility to do both at the same time. You feel like you are indeed making progress.’

McAuliffe’s back-up, Barbara Morgan, eventually got to fly herself, completing the mission Christa was set to carrying out in 1986. During her mission on STS-118, Morgan hooked up with the Centers, live from space, just as McAuliffe was planning to do with her classroom in orbit.

The astronaut also paid a visit – along with most of the STS-118 crew, to the Peoria Center last December, which proved to be an additional inspiration to the teachers and students alike.

‘It was such a thrill to meet her and she became an instant favorite of everyone, students and staff, at our Center.’

More importantly, the relevance of Morgan’s flight to the ISS, and subsequent link ups with the Centers, added an increased level of identification between the space program and the students – which is key to providing that next generation with a foothold into taking up space and science as an area of interest to them, as the Center’s classes already provide.

‘As for the Challenger Network of Centers around the globe, well I think we can get kids interested in the program by the messages our simulated space missions provide to them,’ added Terpstra.

‘We give them useful skills that they can use in every aspect of life, such as team building, communication, cooperation, reading and following instructions, etc. and show them that all of these skills are required in the scientific world. But we also can make the use of those skills fun and engaging.’

Shaking off the shackles that subjects such as science and maths aren’t ‘fun,’ the Centers change that misconception via their missions and classes – through the message of space flight, and not necessarily via the singular aspiration of becoming astronaut.

‘Science can be fun and if you enjoy science, math, etc., there is a place for you in the space program and it doesn’t necessarily have to be as an astronaut.

‘As we know, astronauts are the highest profile people at NASA, for the most part, but they can’t do their missions without the help of thousands and thousands of people who are just as important as the astronauts are. You do not have to be an astronaut to be involved in the space program. I think the emphasis on that is vitally important for all of our Centers.’

As far as an ultimate reward for the Center’s work, and the ultimate tribute to the sacrifice of the STS-51L crew, Terpstra pointed to the current generation attending the Centers as the potential key.

‘My great hope is that the first person on Mars has either come through one of the Centers or will come through one of the Centers in the very near future.

‘It would be the ultimate compliment to the work of the 51L crew for that child to say that he/she was inspired to pursue a career which took them to Mars because of an experience they had at a Challenger Center, which ever one that might be.’

Resources (click links):

Challenger Center Official Site

Challenger Center Network

MaxQ’s Stunning Apollo I/Challenger/Columbia Tribute Video ‘New Days Will Rise’. review of 51L’s loss

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