Liftoff for space education. Astronaut families sponsor far-reaching program to link center, science museums, and classrooms

AS few need to be reminded, the space shuttle Challenger shattered after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members and sending a watching nation into grief. Not long after the tragedy, family members of the crew regrouped at the home of one, June Scobee, widow of Richard Scobee, who had been Challenger's commander. Now, a year and a half later, discussions begun in the Scobee living room have resulted in a far-reaching space education program that will be closely linked to schools and science museums across the nation. The goal is to promote learning in the space sciences for students at all levels through experience-oriented teaching, including simulated space flight.

And with the announcement Wednesday in Washington of the first installment of a $1 million grant from the Gannett Foundation, half of which will go to the education program and half of which will be awarded in matching grants, a full-fledged program should be ready for liftoff within two years.

Curricula on four space-related topics - nutrition, energy and environment, waste and management, and space biology - are being designed and will be tested by ``pilot satellites'' (science museums and technology centers) in Charlotte, N.C.: Atlanta; Houston; and San Diego. In all, 15 to 20 topic units will be developed. Their success with children will be evaluated by a team from the University of Georgia. The publishing firm Macmillan Inc. has expressed interest in offering program text materials.

Groundbreaking for the ``flagship station'' - Action Central for the program, also called the ``Space-Life Station'' - is set for next year at a still as yet undetermined site in the Washington area. The center would be a laboratory where students and teachers could conduct math and science lessons in an environment that simulates space flight. Nine additional centers are being planned nationwide.

Dr. Scobee recalls, ``We met in my living room, sat on the floor, and talked about what the crew would have wanted as a memorial. Each family member reflected on what his or her loved one would have liked. It all revolved around space exploration and education.''

``At first, when I wanted to involve people in helping us to build the Challenger Center,'' she says, ``I told them this was for adults of the nation to come together and build for their children. But the more I talked with children, the more letters I received from them, the more I realized the children also want to help with either advice on what the center should be, or with their own nickels and dimes.

``And through that process, I learned that we're a nation healing together. We have a national family out there.''

The number of supporters of the program has soared from some dozen core crew family members to thousands. They range from fund-raiser Walter Cronkite (erstwhile CBS News anchor and space partisan) to adviser Stephen Jay Gould (science writer and Harvard educator) to ``satellite'' participant Jeff Alexander (science teacher in Charlotte) to corporations, foundations, and countless children across the United States who have written Scobee, currently chairman of the center board.

Richard Methia, a New Bedford, Mass., teacher and member of ``Teachers in Space,'' has been close to the effort almost since its inception.

He explains its elaborate workings: ``The program will be a multilevel outreach that will involve not only the national facility, which will be the most visible, striking, imaginative symbol of the center. It will also involve, in an unusual way, science museums and technology centers around the country, which can then bring in the average classroom and teachers in thousands of schools out there.''

The plan is to give students and teachers simulated space experience during week-long stays at the Space-Life Station, which will be a biosphere composed of podlike units, functioning as an actual space station would function.

During their stays, says Scobee, visitors ``will live as if they were in orbit around the earth. They'll need a power system to keep them up and going; they'll need a guidance and navigation system so they can find their way through space; they'll need a flight deck so they can guide themselves without a pilot.''

Meanwhile, by computer links, ``telelinks'' (advanced telephone systems), and satellite communications, students, teach ers, and interpreters at science museums and technology centers will get a vicarious Space-Life Center experience.

Then, in turn, there will be communications links between museums and classrooms in outlying schools. Mr. Methia envisions 10 to 15 students each week at the Space-Life Center, 30 to 50 direct participants, and several hundred observers at the museum or center, as well as approximately 3,000 children ``sharing the drama and beauty of it'' in the schools.

Mr. Alexander serves as Charlotte Mecklenburg schools' liaison to the center program and to Discovery Place, Charlotte's science museum. Charlotte, he says, has been assigned to produce the pilot curriculum unit on space nutrition. Sixth graders in four to six of the city's 122 schools will test the product. Ultimately, there will be specialized teacher training, covering areas like living in space, working in space, aerospace careers, and potentials of space in the future.

The initial wherewithal for Charlotte's participation comes from the Challenger Center Foundation, with eventual support expected from Discovery Place and the school system itself. Discovery Place is readying an exhibit on nutrition to coincide with the city's pilot role. Beverly Sanford, director of programs and education at the musuem, says her institution also intends to cooperate in teacher training and will draw up supplementary materials.

``The Center was wise and deliberate in getting advice from museums around the country,'' she comments. ``They've been sensitive to the fact that there's a large network of American science museums.''

Alexander says, in summary, ``Our objective here is to continue the Challenger mission through the hearts and the minds of these children.''

Scobee suggests her husband would have been gratified by all this. ``Dick believed that it motivated youngsters to learn their science and math lessons if they had a subject as intriguing as space to talk about.

``And not just math and science, but any subject - an English teacher who encourages her youngsters to write about the future or about space exploration. You get wonderful essays! And space travel inspires art and music....

``We feel the crew's lives would have been given in vain if, somehow, their dreams could not be continued. The idea is to learn from mistakes, and to move forward with a vision of the future.''

Donations to the program may be sent to Challenger Center, PO Box 90077, Washington, DC 20090.

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