On January 28, 1986, the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger set out on a mission to broaden educational horizons and promote the advance of scientific knowledge. In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, the crew’s families came together, still grieving from loss, but firmly committed to the belief that they must carry on the spirit of their loved ones by continuing the Challenger crew’s educational mission.
The organization had modest beginnings. June Scobee Rodgers, wife of Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee, gathered the families of the other Challenger astronauts around her living room coffee table. They were clear on one thing: no brick or mortar monument for these astronauts.
In Silver Linings, Dr. Rodgers’ memoir of the Challenger accident and its aftermath, she wrote, “The world knew that seven Challenger astronauts died, but they were more than astronauts. They were our families and friends. The world knew how they died; we wanted the world to know how they lived and for what they were willing to risk their lives. So, you see, we couldn’t let them die in vain. Their mission became our mission.”
The family members resolved to create a living memorial to the Challenger crew—the world’s first interactive space science education center where teachers and their students could use state-of-the-art technology and space-life simulators to explore space themselves.
In tribute to the astronauts’ courage and vision, Challenger Center for Space Science Education was founded and incorporated on April 24, 1986.
In an interview conducted shortly after the organization’s founding, Dr. Rodgers said, “We just couldn’t let the words ‘Challenger’ or ‘space’ mean something sad for children. So the idea of a living tribute to carry on the educational mission of the crew developed into Challenger Center. This tribute would utilize the excitement of space to inspire and motivate our nation’s schoolchildren to take interest in mathematics, science, and technology.”
Cheryl McNair, widow of Challenger’s Mission Specialist, Ronald McNair, said, “It was good to be able to focus on something positive and know that something good could come from the tragedy.” Jane Smith Wolcott, whose husband Mike Smith piloted the shuttle, agreed: “We did this for ourselves, and for the children. It really seemed the only way to remember them. The space program is very vital to this country. I would want kids to think of Mike in many ways as a role model. He felt the space frontier was our future.”
A Letter to America
On the first observance of the Challenger accident, the family members released a “Letter to America”. In it, they spoke of the work that had been done thus far:
“Since [the loss of the Challenger crew], we have been troubled by the incompleteness of their mission. Lessons were left untaught; scientific and engineering problems were left unsolved. Perhaps saddest of all is the idea that America’s children must once again put their dreams and their excitement about the future ‘on hold’. This is too great a loss, one we cannot accept.
We wish to carry on Challenger’s mission by creating a network of space learning centers all over the United States called, cumulatively, the Challenger Center. We envision places where children, teachers, and citizens alike can touch the future. We see them manipulating equipment, conducting scientific experiments, solving problems, working together—immersing themselves in space-like surroundings and growing accustomed to space technology. As a team, they can practice the precise gestures and the rigorous procedures that will be required of them on the space frontier. They can embrace the vision and grasp the potential of space too.”
Creating the Mission
In an early Challenger Center prospectus, the organization’s mission was clear: “The Challenger Center will be the symbol of our nation’s continuing support of space exploration and an affirmation of our faith in the future. It will re-energize our country’s commitment to educational excellence and increase scientific literacy among our people.”
A campaign to raise $1 million in start-up funds was underway by the fall of 1986. All of the families offered their full support. So did companies such as Rockwell International, manufacturer of the space shuttle; Lockheed Martin; and the Gannett Foundation. Then Vice President George Bush wrote a personal check. Many contributions were also received by several memorial funds quickly established to assist the families or to build memorials. One little boy even sent his Tooth Fairy reward with a note: “Tooth Fairy money is for wishes and dreams. It is my wish to see the Challenger Center built.”
Former White House Aide James Rosebush became the fledgling organization’s first Executive Director. The founders added leaders in education, government, business, space, media, sports, and entertainment to their board. Staff members were hired and office space was donated in Alexandria, Virginia.
Creating the Concept
In June 1987, Challenger Center organized an educational conference at the SunSpace Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, that successfully clarified the organization’s direction. Some 30 museum, education, and scientific experts from across the nation met for three days under the leadership of June Scobee Rodgers and Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut. The meeting’s mission was to refine the specifics of the Challenger Center program—including potential locations and curricula.
The following year, Challenger Center released an ambitious 10-year Science Education Strategic Plan for delivery of space-related educational programs to teachers and students across the nation. Noting national concern over student achievement and teaching methods at the K-12 level, especially in mathematics and the sciences, Challenger Center outlined its long-term goals:
- To increase student interest in and enthusiasm for the sciences, mathematics, and technology;
- To improve students’ knowledge and problem-solving skills in these fields; and
- To teach students to work in teams and think critically.
Challenger Center would emphasize equipping teachers with new materials and techniques to meet students’ needs. To achieve its goals, the Challenger Learning Center concept was created—a national network of educational facilities that would contain highly interactive simulations of living and working environments in space.
In support of the strategic plan, Congress established a $15 million Space, Science, and Technology Education Trust Fund to yield a minimum of $1 million annually in interest for Challenger Center for the next decade. It has subsequently been renewed into perpetuity.
A Grand Opening
The first Challenger Learning Center opened at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 1988. There are now over 40 Challenger Learning Centers located in 31 states, Canada, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, with more opening every year. Learning Centers can offer up to four separate mission scenarios: Rendezvous with a Comet™, Encounter Earth™, Return to the Moon™, and Voyage to Mars™.
Another component of the Challenger Center strategic plan was to create a variety of innovative educational programs and products. Using the same educational philosophies of a Challenger Learning Center simulation, Challenger Center developed classroom programs such as Mars City Alpha®, Marsville: The Cosmic Village®, Cosmic EdVentures: Exploring Earth’s Neighborhood™, and Vista Station™.
The organization has built partnerships with some of the most prestigious science museums, universities, and school districts in the country. It has worked productively with NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Urban League. Beginning in 1998, Challenger Center was selected as the primary education partner for Space DaySM, an annual national initiative to celebrate mankind’s achievements in space.
Looking to the Future
Today, more than 500,000 students, none of whom were even born when the Challenger accident occurred, participate in Challenger Center programs annually. More than 6,000 educators learn the value of simulation for classroom use, adding to the 30,000 classrooms where Challenger Center school-based programs have been made available.
And the mission continues…