Twenty-five years ago Friday, Americans watched with horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its mission, killing all seven members of its crew.
Instead of recoiling from the tragedy, space program supporters, including family members of those who died aboard Challenger, found a unique way to honor those astronauts — through the creation of Challenger Learning Centers that now dot the nation, as they help teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to new generations of students.
The 48th such center is scheduled to open in Louisville, Ky., on Friday’s anniversary of the failed mission. Centers across the country — including two in the Indianapolis metro area — also will hold special programs for students visiting Friday.
“All of us that were alive remember that tragedy,” said Mary Patterson, director of the Brownsburg center. “It was a horrible moment. The families (of the crew members) worked hard to turn tragedy into triumph.”
When it opened in 1994, Brownsburg’s Challenger Learning Center was the first in Indiana. Now there are two others: in Decatur Township in Marion County, and at Purdue University-Calumet in Hammond.
On Friday, 62 fifth-graders from Kingsway Christian School in Avon will visit the Brownsburg center to take part in a chemistry lesson in chromatography that teacher Christa McAuliffe had planned to teach from space in 1986, Patterson said. McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project, died aboard Challenger.
In preparation for their mission, Kingsway teachers Stacy Nolan and Brandon Jackson taught science lessons and had students read related books. They will have them view a documentary on Challenger today in class.
“They get excited about the space program and see how we as a people are trying to learn about space,” said Nolan, referring to activities Kingsway students have experienced on previous trips to the Challenger center, including simulated missions to the moon. “They didn’t really land on the moon, but they feel like it.”
Getting students enthused about science, math, engineering or technology careers is the whole point of the program, Patterson said. Students also build teamwork and decision-making and communications skills during learning center missions.
“They can do averages in (math) class, but when they come here, things suddenly click,” she said.
“They see there is a practical use for averages.”
Decatur Township elementary school teacher Rebecca Starnes will witness her first learning center mission Friday, when her Valley Mills fifth-graders go to the neighboring Indianapolis Challenger Learning Center of Decatur Township.
Starnes remembers watching the Challenger’s takeoff and explosion and the news coverage afterward, when she was just a second-grader. Now, as a teacher, she is glad that the Challenger Learning Center is carrying on Christa McAuliffe’s legacy.
In a tribute to the Challenger crew, the Decatur Township students will go on the first simulated mission developed for the learning centers called “Rendezvous with a Comet,” said Cyndy Meier, lead flight director at the Decatur Township center.
“It gives kids an opportunity to know the importance of STEM in the classroom,” Meier said.
“Challenger lets them apply the knowledge into what could be a possible career.”
As part of Friday’s commemoration, Valley Mills students will learn how gravity works in space, and how space junk can be sucked into the orbits of planets, from special guest David Fuller.
Fuller, who grew up in Monrovia, now works as a NASA aerospace engineer, based in Cleveland. He plans to share his story of how engineering and science gave him an exciting career that has landed him in several countries around the globe.
Fuller said the difficulty and the risk were what drew him to space exploration, and that is also why he’s taking part in the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. He was sitting in class at Texas A&M in 1986 when he first learned of the explosion.
“Those people understood the risks,” Fuller said. “It is far riskier to get in a car and drive to the store than to get in a shuttle and fly to space. . . . For me, the harder something is to do, the more it’s worth.”
Space shuttle program timeline
» April 12, 1981: Maiden flight of the space shuttle Columbia, manned by John Young and Robert Crippin.
» Nov. 11, 1982: Space shuttle Challenger is launched.
» June 18-24, 1983: Astronaut Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space with her mission aboard the Challenger.
» Aug. 30, 1983: Astronaut Guion S. Bluford becomes the first African-American in space during his mission on the Challenger.
» Aug. 30, 1984: First flight of the shuttle Discovery.
» Aug. 8, 1985: First flight of the shuttle Atlantis.
» Jan. 28, 1986: Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds into the flight, killing all seven crew members.
» Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 1988: First shuttle flight after the Challenger explosion.
» June 27-July 7, 1995: The Atlantis docks with the Russian Mir space station.
» Oct. 29-Nov. 7, 1998: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, returns to space aboard Discovery.
» Dec. 4-12, 1998: Endeavour makes the first human flight to the International Space Station.
» Feb. 1, 2003: Fifteen minutes before completing its 28th mission, shuttle Columbia breaks up on re-entry, killing all seven crew members.
» Early 2011: Plans are under way for the last three missions of the space shuttle program. Atlantis’ mission, scheduled for launch June 28, will be the 135th and final mission.
Sources: Information Please, NASA