A Visit to the Challenger Space Center


Photo: Jenny Williams

Want to satisfy your interest in space memorabilia, but live nowhere near the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum? Or perhaps you want to go to Space Camp, but flying to Huntsville, Alabama, is more than you can afford? Well, you may have an alternative: many of our 50 states have Challenger Learning Centers.

Founded by the families of the astronauts lost in the Challenger explosion in 1986, these museums are all about space but on a smaller scale. Some are stand-alone centers, some are a part of something larger. Affiliated with the Smithsonian, there are 44 Challenger Learning Centers around the country and there are locations in the UK, Canada and South Korea. Chances are there is a location near you, so visit the official website for more information.

Photo: Challenger.org, with permission

Setting up an educational and exploratory network of Challenger Learning Centers was a wonderful thing. The families of the astronauts lost in the Challenger explosion didn’t want people to be sad when they thought of the word “Challenger.” I’m not sure that’s possible for those of us who personally remember that day, but for the next generation, it can now bring them wonder. (I remember where I was: Art class, 7th grade. Where were you?) In any case, the centers now bring the appreciation of space closer to home.

I recently took the kids to the Challenger Space Center in the Phoenix area. PBS Kids was sponsoring free admission for families, so I used that as an excuse to finally make the trip. We made it through the Center in about 90 minutes, but I could have easily spent more time reading all the plaques and looking more closely at the many mission patches. Our timing was good because they had a new exhibit on loan from the Air and Space Museum that contained actual materials from the Gemini and Mercury missions. The kids particularly liked seeing the packaged food, toothpaste and other daily necessities that were used by the astronauts.

There was also a Mission Control Room at the Space Center, but there weren’t any programs going on there at the time. I can imagine having a mini-Space Camp experience in there, though. The Challenger Space Center does have some activities set up explicitly for children, and the place is filled with interesting things for adults. It’s a great half-day family outing.

Normally the Arizona Challenger Center does charge admission, which is $8 for adults and $5 for children. Prices may vary in other locations. Or you can choose to become a member and then get free admission all year. The center in Phoenix also hosts summer camps, birthday parties, school field trips and plenty of educational opportunities.

Have you visited a Challenger Learning Center elsewhere in the country? I’m curious to learn what the others are like. Please share your experiences with us in the comments below.

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