Kids have ‘blast’ at space center
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
Las Cruces sixth graders were born long after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986. But, thanks to the generosity and vision of the families of the seven crew members who died that day – and the Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque – the students are learning about science, math, aerospace technology, teamwork, critical thinking and much more at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education (CCSSE) right here in Las Cruces.
Dual-language students from Sierra Middle School were the first to visit the center in late August. When the 2015-16 school year ends next May, every one of Las Cruces Public Schools’ (LCPS) approximately 1,700 sixth graders will have had the opportunity to visit the center twice.
When 29 students from Mesa Middle School visited the center Sept. 3, along with their science teacher, Kathy Bradley, they participated in the Comet Halley mission. Half the group took a simulated space voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) to study the comet, which astronomers on earth have been observing for more than 2,000 years. The comet enters earth’s orbit once every 75 or 76 years and is the only short-period comet that is visible to the naked eye. It was last visible in 1986 and will make its next near-earth visit in 2061.
After the flight to the ISS and a short stay in the decompression chamber, students donned flight vests or lab coats and took up their stations, dealing with everything from life support, data and probe launch to navigation, communications and the isolation chamber. They followed data logs, flight-plan notebooks and task cards to accomplish their assignments, and cooperated with fellow students on the ISS and at mission control to complete their mission.
A visit to the Comet Halley was chosen as the center’s first operation because the seven-day mission of the Challenger crew that died in 1986 included tracking and data relay satellite deployment as part of the Comet Halley Active Monitoring program.
After the simulated mission was successfully completed – students on board the ISS discovered that the comet contained hydrogen gas – the two groups of students changed places, those who had been on the ISS took over in mission control, and those who had been at mission control launched into simulated orbit and worked at the ISS. The second group successfully determined that the Comet Halley also contained nitrogen gas. Both crews simulated landing at White Sands Missile Range.
“They had a blast,” teacher Kathy Bradley said.
Students got to operate a small crane, microphones, and a laboratory glove box, study temperature and humidity (one group had to deal with a hygrometer emergency) and other conditions on and outside the ISS, weigh chemicals, study samples, work in a clean room and engage in written and oral communications with their fellow crew members and with mission control.
The Las Cruces CCSSE is one of 47 in the world, and is the only one in this part of the United States – the closest neighbor is in Colorado Springs. Others are located throughout the U.S. (mostly on the East Coast), and in other countries, including Canada, England and Korea.
The center was originally supposed to be located in the Village of Los Ranchos in Bernalillo County. But, when that fell through, then-LCPS Deputy Superintendent Steven Sanchez worked with the village last fall to get the center’s simulator and other equipment (with a total value of about $1.5 million) donated to LCPS.
Using SB 33 (LCPS School Building Act mill levy) funds, the school district spent about $500,000 to make over the school district’s textbook warehouse at the LCPS Professional Development Center into the home of the world’s newest CCSSE. The one built before this one, in San Antonio, Texas cost $6 million.
The six-month Las Cruces CCSSE construction project was completed this past summer, in time for space missions to begin early in the new school year. Operational funds come from LCPS and the county’s Spaceport gross receipts tax, said Challenger Center Director Melissa DeLaurentis, a teacher on special assignment as the school district’s coordinator for secondary STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the Challenger Center.
DeLaurentis and co-Flight Director Kathleen Guitar emphasized that a visit to CCSSE is not a field trip, it is an extension of the science classroom. It’s an immersion experience, said Guitar, and “everything we preach about what we want our classrooms to look like.” Guitar, whose regular assignment is teaching sixth-grade science at Vista Middle School, is on special assignment at the Challenger Center.
Both DeLaurentis and Guitar wear flight suits while on duty in the center, and are committed to serious aerospace role play. “They (the students) will not dive in if we don’t dive in to the hilt,” Guitar said. A preflight briefing helps educate students about the Challenger disaster. They have also been studying the ISS and related issues in class before their visit. When students come back for a second visit to the Las Cruces center next semester, they will participate in a lunar quest, said DeLaurentis.
The CCSSE is wheel-chair accessible, and center staff are prepared to deal with student disabilities, medical concerns and language issues so that “there will be no sixth grader excluded for any reason,” said DeLaurentis.
The idea for CCSSE came about in April 1986, less than three months after the Challenger disaster, when the families of the crew members who were killed on the flight gathered to “… carry on the spirit of their loved ones. They envision(ed) a place where children, teachers and citizens (could) touch the future: manipulate equipment, conduct experiments, solve problems, and work together, immersing themselves in space-like surroundings.” Their dream became a notfor- profit education organization. The first CCSSE opened in Houston in August 1988.
DeLaurentis said plans are already being discussed to increase the local center’s size, potentially adding a planetarium, a crafts room and a picnic area. Staff hopes to make it available to more students and to the community as a STEM resource center and a place for corporate events. DeLaurentis said the center will host science camps for students next summer, and may become available to other school districts for a fee. And, she said the center would like to add interested community members as part-time volunteer staff.
You can visit CCSSE during a news conference and open house beginning at 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 18 in the board room of the LCPS administration building, 505 S. Main St., Loretto Towne Centre, Suite 249. A ribbon cutting will follow at the CCSSE, on the south side of the LCPS Professional Development Center, 505 S. Main St., Loretto Towne Centre, Suite 400 – just across the parking lot from the administration building.
For more information, contact DeLaurentis at mdelaurentis@ lcps.k12.nm.us. Visit www.challenger.org.