Mission to Mars

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
The Challenger Learning Center in north St. Louis County lets middle-school students learn the basics of space exploration.

FERGUSON, Mo. -- The year is 2076. Interplanetary space flight is a common occurrence, and humans have a permanent presence on Mars. l But even under nuclear propulsion, the trip from Earth to the red planet takes six to nine months and space remains a hazardous place, requiring a highly skilled crew to safely complete the journey.

At the new Challenger Learning Center in north St. Louis County, middle school students can learn the basics of space exploration by experiencing a seemingly realistic rendition of a mission to Mars.

Mellisa Duncan, the center's senior flight director, said the program will help students understand some practical applications in math and science, while teaching them about communication, teamwork and problem solving. All of those skills will be needed to successfully complete the mission.

"We tout it as a unique hands-on space simulation experience," said Duncan, a veteran elementary schoolteacher.

The St. Louis-area facility opened Nov. 17 and became the 49th Challenger Learning Center worldwide.

The local centers are part of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a nonprofit organization founded in April 1986 by the families of the seven astronauts lost in the space shuttle Challenger explosion months earlier.

Although the center pays homage to the Challenger crew, the preflight briefing begins with a remembrance of the seven astronauts who perished early this year when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

"Kids today remember Columbia but aren't old enough to remember Challenger," Duncan said. "It just gives them something to relate to."

Members of the news media were treated to a sneak preview of the center prior to its opening, and participated in a somewhat condensed version of the normally two-hour mission simulation.

The program is designed for school groups in grades six through eight, but even adults can find it an enjoyable learning experience.

Groups are divided in two, with half serving in the Mars-based mission control and the other as the replacement crew coming from Earth in a spacecraft. Both mission control and the transport vehicle command deck look like sets of a science fiction film.

Crew members have different responsibilities ranging from navigating the vehicle into orbit

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