Lily Nguyen, 13, an eighth-grader at the Windham Middle School was among the 24 students from the school that had the first chance to try out the updated equipment at the Challenger Learning Center of Maine in Bangor in October. Credit: Gabor Degre

The Challenger Learning Center of Maine has finished its first major upgrade since the nonprofit opened in 2004, adding robotic arms to a lab and new equipment to its mission control room.

The upgrades will allow school groups that use the center to participate in the newest mission, “Expedition Mars,” in which students will simulate a space mission to Mars’ moon Phobos to collect data on the presence of water and life on the Red Planet.

The upgrades, finished in October, cost $200,000 and allowed the Challenger Center to become part of a NASA cooperative agreement that will give the Bangor center access to new simulation missions such as “Expedition Mars.” The Challenger Center has raised $177,000 of the $200,000 upgrade cost; $100,000 came from a Davis Family Foundation grant focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — or STEM — education.

Credit: Gabor Degre

“We are helping them to make this an enriching experience” for students, said Kristen Hibbard, the center’s executive director. “We’re staying current with NASA and bringing it to students in Maine.”

The Challenger Learning Center includes a lab based on the International Space Station, a transporter room and a mission control room designed to look like NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Students in school groups that participate in mission simulations work as a crew in Mission Control or are “launched” into space.

The upgrades that were finished in October include robotic arms in the lab; new monitors, video camera systems and computer equipment in the Mission Control room; and technological improvements. The $200,000 cost also includes the cost of training center staff on the equipment, software and simulations.

In addition to the “Expedition Mars,” the center will continue to offer all of its previous missions, including “Rendezvous with a Comet,” but will phase those out over the next three to five years. Over that same period, the center will receive more missions through the NASA cooperative agreement.

It takes a lot to carry out a mission aside from the upgraded equipment, Hibbard said. Staff at the center — who are called flight directors — have to learn the new missions and scenarios so they can guide the student participants.

Credit: Gabor Degre

Hibbard said center staff try to make the missions about teamwork, problem-solving and communication. Flight directors address students as a “crew” and have them do all the work.

Since the center opened, more than 70,000 Maine students have participated in its simulated space missions and programs. The center carried out 143 missions in the 2018-19 school year, its third highest on record. The center is aiming for 160 missions this year, Hibbard said. The center also offers summer camps and after-school activities.

The goal, Hibbard said, is to bring space science back to the classroom. Another part of the organization’s work is to help teachers incorporate space science into their everyday curriculum.

“I think that it’s very exciting to see how the center has grown and evolved,” Hibbard said. “It’s a great resource for students in Maine, and we want it to be accessible to everyone.”

An open house to introduce “Expedition Mars” will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Challenger Learning Center at 30 Venture Way in Bangor. The event is free, but registration at the center’s website,, is appreciated.