Louisville's Challenger Learning Center offers simulated Moon la - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Louisville's Challenger Learning Center offers simulated Moon landing for kids

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It's not your typical spacecraft.

Sure, there are plenty of indicators that remind you of space travel: flashing lights, computer screens, and strange labels written in technobabble.

But this isn't your ordinary spacecraft and it's not your ordinary crew. The median age of this crew is about 10.

That said, youth doesn't seem to be a deterring factor for the inhabitants of this ship. They're all busy, scurrying about their affairs, checking lists, conducting scientific experiments.

But in one single instant, that routine is shattered.

Suddenly an alarm blares, there's a flashing red strobe light, and smoke begins pouring from a vent.

"What's going on, Life Support?" shouts William Vandermeer – the only adult in the room, other than this reporter – to the children who make up the Life Support Team. "Everybody get away from that! Get away from that!"

There is brief pandemonium. The kids – little more than middle schoolers – dart away from the vent, covering their mouths and noses with their hands. And for a moment – for a very brief moment – you can sense fear in their eyes.

But that fear soon turns to laughter, then to a resolute determination to complete their mission.

It's all part of your typical day at the Challenger Learning Center.

"Going to the Moon…"

The Challenger Learning Center at Shawnee High School in west Louisville may look like an ordinary school building on the outside, but the inside in quite different. Think of it as Louisville's very own Space Camp. It not only houses classrooms, it also boasts full-fledged spacecraft and Mission Control simulators.

As boys and girls line up at the center this chilling morning in November, they're preparing for a field trip of a different kind. The ultimate field trip: a field trip to the Moon.

"How's everybody doing today?" asked Melissa Brown, the center's education coordinator. "Are you guys excited? Do you know what you're doing today? You're going to fly to the Moon. Do you believe me?"

The class is split into groups – and Group 1 heads for the space capsule simulator. But before liftoff, these students must undergo extensive "decontamination." They are hustled into the decontamination room – a dark room with flashing lights, where they are told they must be cleansed of any Earthside germs that could contaminate the air system in their spacecraft.

"I need you to get up underneath the radiation – underneath the light," said Vandermeer, one of the program's coordinators. "Put your hands out, slowly turn, let it wash all over your body. Think of it like a shower. Clean off all those nasty old germs."

Then it's into the airlock. There is both apprehension and excitement as the airlock door opens, and these young space cadets step out into their spacecraft for the very first time.

The interior of the spacecraft simulator is spacious and well-lit. There are computer consoles everywhere. The students – wide eyed – suit up and hunker down for liftoff.

"The great thing about Challenger is the wow factor," Vandermeer explained. "They feel like they really are going into space – that they are manning the crew positions that they're being given. The nice thing about the simulators are that they look real. So the kids get that wow factor and it makes their reality that much more."

There are several consoles, and students are given cards to know which seats are theirs. Soon they're busying about their various assignments. Some are calibrating a probe that docked with the spacecraft. Others handle communication with Mission Control. There's analysis of moon rocks and some hefty orbital calculations, while the life support team makes sure no one dies in the process.

The spacecraft crew doesn't know it, but their every move is being watched. Down the hall in Mission Control, other students scrutinize everything via a series of monitors. Keeping true to their mandate to "control the mission," these students pore over lunar maps, narrowing down a landing site so the crew of the spacecraft can deposit their capsule on the surface of the Moon safely.

It's a successful touchdown. But as previously noted, not everything goes as planned.


The alarm rings. The lights flash. Smoke pours from the vents. And for one brief moment, the students are afraid.

"Basically our filters had become contaminated with regolith from the Moon," Vandermeer explained later. "I guess the samples that had come back from the probe had somehow got into our air system and contaminated the atmosphere inside the spacecraft. Regolith has been proven to cause respiratory problems for astronauts, and so it's another bit of realism. We had to get the students out of the spacecraft so that we could solve that problem before they could come back into it."

And get them out they do. The students not only simulate a gas leak – they simulate a mass evacuation of the spacecraft, pouring into the airlock to escape. But it's not so easy: only half of the group can fit into the airlock for the first trip. The other half must wait in the spacecraft alone for tantalizing moments before Vandermeer returns to get them too.

"The smoke came out of the vent, and I started freaking out, like, 'Is this actually supposed to happen? Is this part of what was supposed to happen or is this an accident – like an actual gas leak, or something like that?'" said Collins Bates, one of the middle school students. "I was like, running towards the door and I forgot my pencil. So I run over and decide to grab a bunch of other stuff – a bunch of papers too. So I get over and I'm not able to get on the evacuation thingy because it's full. So me and a couple of other students had to sit there for like, 10 to 30 seconds."

The nervous discomfort students feel at the simulated problems is intentional, according to Vandermeer.

"We try to add just a little bit of doubt in their mind, as to whether this is simulated, or is it real," he said. "We don't have a huge budget like Disney does, but we try to throw a few effects at them so that we kind of make them a little bit uncomfortable and get them better – they pay better attention to us in those situations."

But in the end, the "smoke" is actually harmless. The air is clean. No one is ever in any danger, and as Vandermeer explains, the survivability rate of crews at the Challenger Center is 100 percent.

"The survivability rate is high -- and that's the great thing about the program," he said. "Every kid comes and does their part, and at the end, they get to be a part of a successful mission. So they've invested their time and themselves into it so it becomes important to them."

And that time they've invested is well rewarded. After evacuation, the students are escorted back to the classroom, reunited with their fellow students and given a hero's welcome.

Triumph from tragedy

The Challenger Learning Centers – which are located all over the country – were born out of tragedy, created in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger disaster that killed seven astronauts, including Teacher in Space participant Christa McAuliffe.

"The entire mission – everything about Challenger – was inspired from that mission," Brown explained. "That was the Teacher in Space mission designed to inspire students to, you know, want to reach for the stars and go forward in STEM-related careers. That was the hope at the time."

Today, the center offers hands-on learning experiences where students use the critical thinking skills of applied science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And as Brown explains, it's not just about teaching kids to be astronauts.

"They learn teamwork," she said. "They learn how to read directions and follow instructions – like a checklist – as NASA astronauts would obviously do. They learn to use data to be able to make decisions, so data-driven decisions is really important."

It's an experience that has teachers giving a thumbs up.

"I would hope that every teacher would bring their students here," said Shareka Alexander, a teacher from Westport Middle School. "This is a wonderful place – a great opportunity for the students to work together to complete a task."

And Vandermeer says the center is always looking for more space cadets.

"We can cover schools from southern Indiana, Jefferson County Public and private, and central Kentucky," he said. "We have schools as far away as Bowling Green and Lexington that come and fly with us. We've done Boy Scout groups, we've done Girl Scout groups, church youth groups. We're open to anybody who wants to come talk to us."

But when it's all said and done, most students don't think much about the educational benefit or the learning experience. They want to fly the spaceship.

"The good thing is that the mission was a success at least," said Keenrruy Murillo, a student. "It gives me satisfaction."

Any teachers interested in setting up a visit to the Challenger Center can learn more by clicking here.

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