BANGOR, Maine — Amid the youthful energy of middle school students embarking on a simulated space mission inside Bangor’s Challenger Learning Center on Friday, it was hard to fathom the tragedy that ultimately led them there.
Jan. 28 marked the 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster that claimed the lives of six astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher and the first ordinary American cleared for space travel.
The shuttle explosion, which came 73 seconds after liftoff, unfolded on live television and burned indelible images into the memory of those who witnessed it.
Out of that tragedy, family members of the victims sought a way to memorialize their loved ones that rose above a static museum. The result was the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which has led to the creation of 47 centers across the country. The 48th Challenger Center opened Friday in Louisville, Ky.
“We believe Christa would be especially pleased by and proud of the center and its mission,” McAuliffe’s widower, Steven McAuliffe, said in a statement. “The Challenger Center honors each crew member’s devotion to learning and exploration, touching the lives of over 400,000 students and 40,000 teachers each year.”
Bangor’s Challenger Learning Center of Maine, the only one in Maine, opened in 2004 in the former movie theater of Dow Air Force Base and today offers dozens of simulated space missions and other educational programming year-round.
“The hardest part is getting people to realize that we’re here,” Executive Director Susan Jonason said this week. “But once they are here, they’re amazed.”
The center features historical artifacts and paraphernalia of space missions and also replicates a mission control center, space shuttle and space lab.
Twenty-six eighth-grade students from Winslow Junior High School spent Friday at the Challenger Center flying a “comet mission.” For the first part of the mission, half the students were stationed in the mission control room. The other half were launched into space and then were stationed at the simulated space lab. After about an hour, the groups swapped places.
“As soon as the mission begins, they are so focused on the job. That doesn’t always happen in the classroom,” said Jennifer Therrien, the center’s coordinator, or “backbone,” as Jonason calls her.
Principal Kevin Michaud admitted that it was quite an honor to be there on the 25th anniversary of the shuttle disaster.
Michaud, who was a teacher at the time, said it would always be a day he remembers.
“These kids don’t know, but that was a profound moment,” he said.
In addition to the shocking loss of seven lives, University of Maine history professor Howard Segal said the Challenger disaster was significant because it exposed flaws in NASA safety.
“The 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster should remind us that overconfidence in the alleged safety of complex scientific and technological devices is always dangerous,” he said.
Segal further said that the circumstances of the launch — despite safety concerns, there was pressure for the event to take place on Jan. 28 to coincide with President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address — were a reminder that politics should have no place in the space program.
Seventeen years later, on Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia exploded during re-entry, killing the seven people on board.
At the Challenger Center in Bangor, Jonason said the missions and educational programming offer profound moments of a different kind every week.
“We do things here that you just can’t replicate in the classroom,” she said. “And students that are shy and reserved and not always into learning really come to life.”
Jessica Valdez, one of the flight directors for Friday’s mission, agreed.
“All the missions are basically structured the same way, but the kids make each mission unique,” she said during a break from helping the Winslow students with their assignment.
Richard Cattelle, a member of the center’s board of directors and a former mission controller who worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in the 1960s and 1970s, said he is still struck by the center’s educational offerings. He hopes that spirit continues.
“I remember in the early ’60s when [President John F. Kennedy] said we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. We knew nothing when he said that, but it happened,” Cattelle said.
For more information on the Challenger Learning Center of Maine, visit www.clcofme.org or call 990-2900.