Las Cruces students explore space at the reopening of the Challenger Center

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On Sept. 7, Las Cruces Public Schools’ Challenger Learning Center resumed its normally scheduled face-to-face expeditions after a year and a half online.

The simulated spacecraft is meant to represent the Space Shuttle Challenger. Today, there are more than 40 Challenger Learning Centers around the country.

Normally, each sixth-grade science class visits the Challenger Learning Center annually to participate in the immersive Expedition Mars, which is set in the year 2076.

The centers are meant to inspire young students to take an interest in science and honor the lives lost in the 1986 Challenger explosion that took the lives of seven astronauts. The students learn about the astronauts and the tragedy upon entering the center.

Story Highlights

  • All fell silent for a moment after successfully buckling into their seats, but an explosion of giddy shouts filled the cabin as their seats began moving to emulate space travel.

  • “They don’t say science is boring so much anymore,” said Luis Torres, who brought in his sixth-grade science classes from Sierra Middle School. “I can see they really start loving science … It’s an awesome field trip with a lot of hands-on for them.”

2020 was different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed all school buildings in March 2020, the Challenger Learning Center had been vacant. It did not reopen in April 2021 like all other school buildings because of its close quarters and hands-on activities.

Keeping science fun during the pandemic

As an alternative to the hands-on Expedition Mars, students participated in a virtual expedition to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that has been recorded to have an ocean. “It was really successful, I mean, for the situation,” said Kathleen Guitar, lead flight director at the center. “Everybody hated being at home and all that, but at least this was something fun and different.”

Guitar added that the center hosted four space camps over the summer with limited occupancy, but apart from that, this is their first in-person expedition in 18 months. Torres said that some of his students last year really enjoyed the online alternative.

“It’s a different version of it,” Torres said. “The in-person one is, by far, so much better. Like I said, it draws them into science better than the Zoom version that we did. But overall, I would say the Zoom version was better than nothing.” What does the expedition look like now?

The day started out with four Challenger Center staff members debriefing the students on the Expedition Mars and what their roles would be once they began. The students were split into two teams: one that started in Mission Control and another that started in the Mars Transport Vehicle. Each student worked individually to complete their instructed tasks. All students were focused on their assignments.

Apart from the required mask-wearing and smaller class sizes, the Challenger simulation is very similar to what it looked like pre-pandemic. The Challenger Learning Center Staff have been eagerly awaiting the students’ return. By far, the students’ favorite part of the day is getting to ride in the simulated space shuttle. Throughout the day, students seemed to truly believe they were traveling in space to a degree.