A siren blared, a red light flashed and all heads snapped to attention.
“Looks like we have an emergency,” mission commander Victoria Burr told the young astronauts in the space station. “The navigation team has found an unknown object out there. What do you think it might be?”
The astronauts consulted their monitors and analyzed the bright object on an overhead screen. There was speculation that it might be an asteroid or a comet.
“It looks like a star,” one astronaut offered.
“We’re moving our telescope closer so we can see what it is,” Burr replied.
Gases were collected from around the mass and analyzed. Data was sent to mission control.
Determining it was not safe to stay in the vicinity of the unknown object, the astronauts boarded their space plane and returned to miSci, where their mission began.
In fact, Thursday’s whole mission took place right there in the Museum of Innovation and Science, in the new Challenger Learning Center.
It was easy to forget that though.
The center includes equipment similar to what would be used during an actual space mission. A round room with an automatic sliding door — the transporter — takes students on a simulated launch. In the space station are consoles, television sets and computerized equipment.
Based on NASA astronaut training, the 2,500-square-foot center transforms participants into part of a crew of engineers and scientists in simulated space missions. They conduct experiments and other activities in mission control to monitor and guide the space crew at the International Space Station.
Thursday’s astronauts were seniors from Tech Valley High School, participating in one of the first missions offered at the center.
It’s opening was announced Thursday afternoon to the public.
Local elected officials, miSci and Challenger Learning Center board members, educators and project sponsors praised the new resource as a hands-on way to bring STEM education to a wide audience.
“I want to inspire,” said Mac Sudduth, miSci’s executive director. “I want to be able to say, ‘My museum started this person on their career as an astronaut, as a doctor, as an engineer,’ that’s what I want, or if that doesn’t happen, I want to at least say, ‘Exposure to STEM made this person a much better citizen.’ ”
“It’s really good STEM stuff,” he said. “It’s fun, it’s exciting, it does a lot of things that you can’t do in the classroom. It’s a really good, proven simulation where kids come in and do a mission, or adults, for that matter.”
Noah Hellman, part of the medical team on Thursday’s space mission, was busy checking astronauts’ temperatures in the International Space Station.
“You have to make sure you know that all of the astronauts are in healthy condition all through the trip, make sure we catch anything early on,” the Tech Valley High School student explained, noting that he had yet to discover any serious illness onboard.
The students participating in Thursday’s mission were a bit older than the Challenger Learning Center’s target audience, which is fifth- through eighth-graders.
“That’s when they lose interest in science and math,” said Julia Muffler, the center’s director. “We want to capture them back and that’s also the age when they begin to think ‘I’m not very good at these subjects’ and we want to make sure they understand that they really are.”
Programs are also offered at the center for older and younger children, as well as for corporate groups.
Major funders of the center include Neil and Jane Golub, The Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region, Betty and David Apkarian and friends, The Schenectady Foundation, George Hearst and the Times Union, Fenimore Asset Management and the Wright Family Foundation.
Additional support was provided by the state Senate through the efforts of Sen. Hugh Farley of Niskayuna and through a consolidated funding application grant from the State of New York.
During Thursday’s opening ceremony, Farley announced he has acquired a $250,000 grant from the state Dormitory Authority to install an elevator in the museum. The elevator will make the lower level accessible to all museum visitors and allow miSci to use the area for exhibit space.