Jan. 28 marked the 25th anniversary of what at the time was the worst accident in the history of U.S. human spaceflight: Seven astronauts lost their lives when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

Students across the country were tuned in to the ill-fated launch of Challenger’s STS-51L mission because one of the crew members was high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first to fly as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. The aim of the initiative was to use the space shuttle program as a means to stimulate student interest in so-called STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In the wake of the tragedy, the families of the fallen astronauts banded together to create the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Its mission: Follow through on Challenger’s educational objective by giving students the opportunity to participate in simulated space missions both as explorers and as ground-based controllers.

These computerized mission simulations are conducted at regional centers that typically are housed in museums or college campuses. Today there are 48 such centers, all but three of which are in the United States. The three non-U.S. centers are in Canada, the United Kingdom and South Korea, but plans call for expansion into Poland, Norway and perhaps India.

Some 4 million students have been through the program since 1986, and in recent years the annual average has been about 400,000. Scott Parazynski, a NASA astronaut and medical doctor who took over in November as chairman of the center’s board of directors, wants to increase that number to 4 million per year by 2015.

Parazynski, who also has the distinction of having scaled Mount Everest, spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.

What kinds of roles do students play in your mission simulations?

They have very specific roles that they take ownership of and then about halfway through the mission they’ll actually switch positions with their counterparts; if they were in mission control, they’ll jump into the spacecraft, and the folks that had been in deep space will come and run the rest of the mission in mission control. They’re developing teamwork, they’re learning about different facets of science, there are medical officers, there are rendezvous and navigation officers, flight directors and so on. Kids will assemble a satellite probe as part of their mission; there will be various malfunctions that occur during their experience that they have to work through as a team.

How have the simulations evolved since 1986?

Initially it was fundamentally a shuttle simulation and kids would come in and fly the STS-51L mission to completion. We’ve expanded our mission scenarios to include missions to the Moon and Mars, and our ambition is quite substantial. We’d like to have undersea missions, polar exploration, even convert our simulations into a microbot that would allow kids to navigate a medical robot inside the body.

The other element that we’re trying to assure kids is that there’s a real future for them in space. So we’re very excited about this new era of commercial spaceflight and we’re starting to have a dialog with commercial spaceflight providers to demonstrate that we can actually do simulations in different types of spacecraft, different types of mission controls and really reinforce the fact that space is forever; it’s in kids’ futures.

What kind of preparation do the students undergo for a simulation?

The prep work starts weeks in advance. Typically in a space science block they’ll have materials made available to their teachers; oftentimes teachers will come in for special missions prior to their classes, even going through the program. Then they’ll come in and conduct their mission, and we have additional follow-on materials available to them online and in print.

What are your primary sources of funding?

We have a $1 million-a-year congressionally mandated allotment, an endowment that was established in the aftermath of the Challenger accident. That provides our basic operating costs. Of course it costs a little bit more than that to run an organization these days, but that is a good chunk of what we need to operate at the national level. We have 48 learning centers around the country, each of which has its own local budget. The national organization is responsible for keeping the network supported with new materials, updating the software engine and growing the organization. So a lot of our growth comes from philanthropy, and we obviously have aerospace friends who have been very generous in their donations to our mission, and then we have a large number of private donors. We have people that have given what they can — from a dollar to $100,000 — over the years.

What does it cost to establish a regional Challenger center?

The current brick-and-mortar simulation costs about $850,000, and that includes everything from the displays and software to the consoles and the satellite probes and the microscopes and all the bells and whistles. Of course that has to be placed into a facility, which is a separate cost.

What are you doing to reach a greater number of underprivileged students?

One of the things we’re aspiring to do is reduce the barriers to entry. So to help communities that might otherwise not have access to a learning center, we will develop virtual missions led by Challenger Center flight directors remotely, using a school’s computer laboratory as an example. Alternatively, we also hope to bring in portable learning centers that we would truck in from a distant location. So we would have probably a couple of tractor trailers that would pull into the school’s parking lot. You would have one that would be mission control perhaps; the other would be a spacecraft. The walls would be reconfigurable; you could set it up for all sorts of different types of missions, with flat screen displays and interfaces where kids could get into simulation mode.

When do you plan to have these capabilities available?

This is one of our primary goals in the next year, to prototype virtual and portable missions. And of course the basic infrastructure can be had very cheaply — the shipping containers that you see around the world are in great excess, so you can get those cheaply. Electronics have come down substantially as well, so we hope to, in the next few months, pending funding, start prototyping some of these simulators that we would then deploy around the country.

What other kinds of upgrades are you considering?

One of our biggest-ticket priorities right now is to develop a new Web engine to support all of our simulations and network. It’s a substantial upgrade; it’s a collaborative environment wherein various learning centers can contribute various aspects of the mission scenario and they can work together or they can generate an entire mission and then share it across the Internet. So it’s a very powerful tool and it’s really the next steppingstone to our growth.

Apollo was an inspiration for many who are in the space field today. Is it possible to recapture that in this day and age?

I think it’s challenging, but I do think it’s very possible. Certainly Apollo shaped my younger years and it led to the career that I finally achieved, but I think that there are a lot of distractions that compete for kids’ time. Technology is everywhere whereas in Apollo it was more of an anomaly.

Does the extended state of limbo for the U.S. human spaceflight program pose a danger that the public will lose interest?

I don’t think we stand to lose our schoolkids. Kids remain fascinated with space travel, and the more we hear about shuttle flights and then hopefully future exploration targets for NASA and of course commercial spaceflight coming on line, I think that’ll all reinforce the sense in kids’ minds that there could be a future for them in space as well.

I would say we’ve never had any challenge getting kids motivated for space once they’ve been in our simulations. Once they come to us they are as fired up as can be. I would actually turn it around and say that as our nation redefines its space program, the Challenger Center actually plays a vital role in keeping the spirit of exploration alive in our students. So I would say that we probably are helping keep that spirit of exploration alive as we’re in this period of limbo.

So you don’t think a five-year hiatus in U.S. human spaceflight capability poses any sort of threat to the Challenger Center’s mission?

If I were to identify the threats to our organization I would probably not consider the doldrums of our current NASA space programs, but rather turn it towards the educational system in our country as a whole. One of the bigger threats that I see beyond the economy is just the tendency to teach towards standardized testing, and unless a particular subject matter is going to be on that grade level’s standardized tests, it’s hard to get certain teachers and certain school districts to see the value and take the time out to come to a learning center. And that is a real disservice because there’s less emphasis then on problem solving and creative thinking; it’s just about rote memorization and scoring as high as possible to meet the metrics that that particular grade level or school district has.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...