Blast Off!


TSTC launches its Challenger Learning Program

By Joey Gomez

A little more than 50 years ago, the U.S. was in the midst of a space race.  In a dead heat with the former USSR, the competing nations vied for technological supremacy, and the race reached its peak when the U.S. successfully landed a man on the moon in July 1969.

When then-president John F. Kennedy famously stood up and challenged a joint session of Congress and the American people to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s, he kicked off a wave of applied science and technology that would demonstrate the American way of life for the rest of the world.


Texas State Technical College was also born out of this same period.  Created by the State of Texas to ensure the demand of a trained technical workforce would be met, and to meet the growing demands of science and technology, TSTC was and continues to play its part in developing the country’s competitive nature in a global economy.

“It’s no accident that 50 years ago, TSTC was created by the State of Texas to make sure we had a trained technical workforce to meet the growing demands that science and technology would have on our economy,” said TSTC Chancellor Mike Reeser.  “Ultimately, we won the space race, but today there is a new battle.  That battle has to do with our way of life and the health of our economy in a growingly competitive and global economy.  Science, technology, engineering, and math are going to be the lifeblood of our competitive nature in that global economy.”


Reeser was one of several distinguished speakers called in December to usher in TSTC’s new Challenger Learning Center, a state-of-the-art space laboratory and simulator designed to introduce students from elementary to high school to real world experiences in space travel.

Also attending the opening was TSTC President Dr. Cesar Maldonado, Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, Space X representative Alma Waltzer, and Challenger Center Board chairwoman, Gwen Griffin.

“This Challenger Center isn’t just about college, it’s about lighting that spark in students from elementary students all the way through those of looking for a new career, a new start, and a new change.  This center will undoubtedly do that,” Maldonado said at the event.

“As our area grows with regards to space exploration, we have the United Launch Alliance here, Space X will hopefully be locating here shortly, and there are tremendous amounts of opportunity,” Maldonado said.  “Positive energy has always been very strong here.  What we teach here has always been very integral to what is taught in the simulator, so the Challenger Learning Center is not just about space.  It’s about all types of science.”

The Challenger mission will align with STAAR and TEKS objectives for math and science.  The center features a space flight simulator used to immerse students in a variety of real-world experiences related to space travel.

Away from the passive structure of classrooms, students will enter a true-to-life space system environment that invites them to be active participants, being designated to work in either a simulated mission control center or recreated space station.

The experience is state-of-the-art from start to finish.  At Mission Control, students will be using Apple Computers and IP cameras to monitor and direct many variables such as life support and “probe” functions.  Students will be able to view task assignments as well as student activity in the space station via 65-inch TV screens

Students assigned to Mission Control will operate with the purpose to guide astronauts (students) to a nearby comet or even to Mars while continuously monitoring the health and safety of those students in the space station.  A professional flight director in the room will monitor them and give them a true NASA training session.

On the space shuttle, students will board an actual shuttle simulator to experience a flight launch.  A realistic effect is obtained by the surround sound system and 20 flight chairs facing a projector screen with images of space and the universe.  Once in simulated space, students will mimic true space activities inside the space station.  Students may build a probe, for example, and launch it into the most active part of a comet without crashing it into the nucleus.

The Challenger structure alone is enough to spark visitors’ curiosity.  Several screens display information about the shuttle, discovered soils, comets, and other objects of study.  Robotic arms are available to assist in testing different chemicals.  Every station has a unique function.  Students will work on scientific lab experiments throughout the mission.

“I have to say it is a real privilege to serve as the chair of the board of this organization.  Of all non-profit STEM organizations I’m engaged with, this is the most personal for me for many reasons,” said Griffin.  As chairwoman of the Challenger Center Board of Directors, she leads a national network that promotes the work of NASA and the astronauts who have served that institution.

“Challenger Center really has played a significant role in my family and my life since its inception.  My dad later went on to be the director of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, and he was the director when the Challenger crew was training for that first teacher in space mission,” Griffin said, referring to her experience dealing with the space shuttle disaster in 1986.

“These were my family’s personal friends,” Griffin said of the Challenger crew.  “While I was only 22 years old at the time, I knew it would impact my life for decades to come.”

For students, it’s an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics all come together to make mankind better.

Over 5,000 students will move through the center this year, and the facility has been booked solid through March.  The college is starting out with 5th graders through the middle school level and is looking to expand beyond that.  The center will promote science, technology, engineering, and math, and above all, will seek to ignite a spark in students from elementary students all the way to those who are looking for a new career for a new start and a new change.

“We aren’t racing the Russkies to the moon anymore.  But just as valuable is the science, technology, engineering, and math that a center like this embodies, that a center like this has capability to light a spark in a student who can go on to become another version of those great American heroes,” Reeser said.

“Indeed, the Challenger, the Columbia, the trials and tribulations of the space program, and all the victories were manned by men and women who were great American heroes,” he said.  “TSTC is proud to be a host institution for this center, because it’s our hope that in the generations to come, starting right here in this building, another wave, in fact generations of American heroes will start right here.”