A new space mission simulator at Texas State Technical College’s Waco campus will give students a hands-on outlet where they can put classroom lessons into practice.

The new Challenger Learning Center will put students through a full mission simulation.

The Challenger Center for Space Science Education will run the program. Families of astronauts killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion worked to form the nonprofit agency, which is dedicated to continuing the educational mission of the crew. The Challenger crew included high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. She planned to teach two 15-minute lessons from space, according to the organization.

“The technology, the science, the engineering and the mathematics, all those things fit well with the TSTC mission,” TSTC Waco Provost Adam Hutchison said. “So when the opportunity came to have a destination on our campus to bring K-12 students here, it was a great fit.”

The Challenger Center runs more than 40 educational simulators in four countries.

TSTC will celebrate the grand opening at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at 901 Airline Drive. Group rates range between $400 and $500 for a two-hour mission at the former Air Force building.

Hutchison said the center cost more than $500,000, and donations from the Cooper Foundation and The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation made the two-year project possible.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the Challenger Learning Center and the opportunities it brings for TSTC and the city of Waco, economic development and a number of other things on many fronts,” Rapoport Foundation executive director Tom Stanton said.

Up to 32 students start in the briefing room, where they learn about the Challenger mission and the death of its seven crew members.

“When NASA started speaking with the families about how they wanted to memorialize the loved ones lost, they wanted to really continue the mission of education,” center director Trey Pearson said.

Half of the students are then sent to simulated mission control, and the other half are sent to the simulated shuttle, where they experience the shuttle’s liftoff and connection to the International Space Station.

“This is the fun thing,” Pearson said of the shuttle in the center. “It’s an attention grabber. It’s interactive and, it’s kind of shocking when the seats rumble.”

Students in mission control and the space station will work in conjunction to navigate star fields, examine space rocks and conduct experiments to accomplish the mission.

‘Meant to inspire’

“Everything here is meant to inspire them and get them started thinking about space, about STEM, and to get them in that mindset,” Pearson said. “The success or the failure of the mission they’re going to fly really depends on the students. They have task cards and they have jobs. We’re here to help them here and there, but they’re here to man the experience.”

The response to another Challenger Center at TSTC’s Harlingen campus inspired the Waco project, said Neri Balli, TSTC state director of pre-college programs.

“We had so many (independent school districts) excited and started bringing in students right away,” Balli said of the Harlingen center. “We opened up in December and by January we were booked, completely booked, without us promoting. So it was a really big impact on the ISDs.”

Lessons learned throughout the missions reinforce the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, Hutchison said. He already has spoken with local high school teachers excited to spend a day there with students, Hutchison said.

“We’re thrilled,” he said. “We’re honored to be a part of what the challenger center is doing and the way they honor those astronauts. We think it’s an exciting thing in the Greater Waco area, especially for students, to help them see they can get involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics right here in Waco. They get that hands-on experience.”

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If you go

What: Grand opening of the Challenger Learning Center

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: 901 Airline Drive at TSTC

Who: Provost Adam Hutchison, TSTC Chancellor and CEO Michael Reeser, Challenger Center President and CEO Lance Bush

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