Arizona Challenger Space Center Inspired Future Scientists For 17 Years

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Monday, July 31, 2017 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, July 31, 2017 - 4:18pm

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Arizona Challenger Space Center
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
The Arizona Challenger Space Center was designed with help from schoolchildren.

Space has inspired countless young minds to wonder and explore beyond our earthly knowledge. An Arizona center built in Peoria to keep that curiosity alive is closing its doors. Now, the home to years of cosmic education is changing.

Space camp is in session at the Arizona Challenger Space Center in Peoria. Kids stack bright blue foam blocks, like giant Lincoln logs, into forts and towers – all to knock them down again.

The center opened in 2000, and is one of many established after the tragic Challenger accident to continue space education outreach. While the space center has classes for kids of all ages, it also attracts local families looking to beat the heat.

"Another thing I liked was the other, smaller theater where we watched how the rockets take off," Blaize Pacheco said, visiting the center with his mom and younger brothers.

Pacheco is talking about the satellite simulation where you walk in a dark room and television monitors glow with the blue and white image of earth.

If you keep going through the realistic simulation, you'll encounter a dark, rotating chamber.

"Then there's an airlock, because you can't let what goes out there come in here," Space Center director Beverly Swayman said, giving a tour of the simulator. "So now you're gonna turn, back to where we started, and there you are, this is the simulated space station." 

Swayman shows off different features and stations, like robotic arms controlled by joysticks and a sterile room for investigating moon rocks.

One-Of-A-Kind Space Center Building Being Sold

The entire building looks like it could be part of a Mars colony. Walking up feels like entering a landed rocket ship, with an all white tube-like center, flanked by angular, mirrored walls, like rocket wings, and surrounded by bright red scaffolding. But the building won't be the center's home much longer. The property is being sold because the center had trouble meeting expenses.

"Until we can relocate the simulated space entity, we cannot do those," Swayman said, referencing the space station simulator. "So we are going to have to rely on our outreach programs for the first months we're trying to relocate, get rebuilt, get repositioned."

The outreach programs go into classrooms to spread education about space exploration.

The doors close August 5 and Swayman hopes to be in a new space by the end of the year.

But they'll have to leave behind a panoramic, science-fiction inspired mural by NASA illustrator Robert McCall, worth around $500,000. It was the last mural he touched up, manually, before his death in 2010. The mural couldn't be moved without extensive damage.

"I think there's always going to be a special place in everyone's heart who's ever worked here, because it is special," Swayman said about the mural and building. "However, I'm also very, very excited about the future."

Swayman said 33,000 kids a year go through their programs, and one of them was 26-year-old graduate student Jana Gojic.

"I work as a research technician at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Science Operation Center at Arizona State University," she said.

Challenger Center Inspires Next Generation Of Space Scientists

Basically, Gojic helps get high resolution moon pictures for NASA. She was born in the same Croatian hometown as famed scientist Nikola Tesla, and felt the call to be a scientist. But she wasn't sure what kind, until she volunteered at the space center after graduating high school.

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
ASU graduate student Jana Gojic volunteered at the Space Center, and now works on a NASA project.

"I think on my first day there, I was like, it's definitely going to be astronautics, I don't want to do aeronautics anymore," Gojic said. Aeronautics are focused on flight within Earth's atmosphere — astronautics are focused on flight in space.

Go back even further, and Gojic said her love of space was first sparked on a fifth grade field trip to the space simulator at Challenger.

"It painted space flight in this whole new way for me, just seeing the challenges that this feat requires and the kind of incredible people that essentially risk their lives for human discovery."

Gojic said she'll miss the mural most, and hopes the center's new home will continue to inspire visitors. And that's not limited to an age group, which Phoenix resident Sharon Bertolone can attest.

"It's a good simulator, where you really think you're really going up in space and you hear all the sounds and everything, that was really neat," Bertolone said.

Bertolone made the drive with her husband to see the center one last time.

"I don't think it matters how old I get, I'll never stop loving this stuff," she said.

She's loved space ever since she saw an Apollo mission take off when she was 10 years old in Florida.

"It's really interesting and you learn a lot," she said. "Yeah, I'm really sorry to see it close."

Lucky for Bertolone, the Challenger center may re-open closer to her. Director Swayman said it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to move, and is in talks to partner with cities like Peoria, Glendale or Phoenix, though the new location has not been finalized yet.

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