Ten-year-old Lauren Kovalcik could be playing a game on her home computer as she stares intently at a video monitor and maneuvers a joystick.

But this is no game.

She’s doing the serious work of operating a remote robot arm located in the greenhouse of her space station. Her job is to use the robot to place a plant’s leaf into a container so its chlorophyll content can be measured.

It’s a lot of responsibility for someone so young, but she said she can handle it. “I have my own computer at home. … I like technology,” she said.

Meanwhile, another crewmember, 12-year-old Dallas Culp, uses a remote robot arm to take radiation readings from one of the station’s air filters. His job is to make sure the station’s life-sustaining airflow isn’t being contaminated. But he’s already set his eyes on even loftier objective.

“Someday, I’d like to go to a comet or a planet—just to see what it’s like,” he said.

This isn’t a new recruitment effort on NASA’s part. But these youngsters could become the astronauts of the future.

They’re budding scientists who have been testing a space station simulator at the Challenger Learning Center of Arizona, a $7.5 million education complex in Peoria that will teach children and adults about the marvels of space travel.

The center, which opened July 23, includes a simulated mission control room with an array of video monitors just like the one at Johnson Space Center in Houston. There’s also an Earth-Space Transit Module designed by Honeywell engineers to simulate a space shuttle launch.

To make practical use of the simulators, school classes from around the state will be assigned make-believe space missions, such as a rendezvous with a comet or scouting the moon for a space-colony site.

The center’s concept has proved so popular that Arizona teachers already have booked all the available weekday mission times for the next school year. And Intel Corp. has agreed to pay the admission of every eighth-grader in the Chandler Unified School District.

“We always look for opportunities to expose students to math and science, especially in a creative learning environment,” said Cheryl Rawdon, Intel’s manager of community grant programs in Chandler. “This appears to be a great opportunity to do that.”

The experience may not inspire every youngster to become an astronaut, but it “might motivate them to think about a career in science, and that ties into our future work force,” she said.

The project was developed under the auspices of the Challenger Learning Center for Space and Science Education in Alexandria, Va., a nonprofit organization founded by relatives of the Challenger space shuttle astronauts killed in the 1986 explosion. Its purpose is to memorialize the astronauts by creating a network of education centers that encourage youngsters to pursue careers in science and technology.

The Arizona center is one of the most elaborate of the 43 Challenger centers developed so far, thanks to donations from local companies, executive director Sandi Hicks said. Among the sponsors are Cox Communications, Knight Transportation, Swift Transportation, Honeywell International, Southwest Airlines, and Del Webb Corp.

One of the main features is a three-story rotunda decorated with a 360-degree wall mural by space artist Robert McCall. Other attractions include a model of an Iridium satellite donated by Motorola, a Mars Pathfinder exhibit where kids can navigate a motorized robot through rugged Martian terrain, and a Rooftop Stargazing Platform equipped with telescopes for night viewing of planets and stars.

But the simulators are the heart of the learning experience, which is designed for fifth- through eighth-graders.

Students arriving for their space trek first enter a theater and orientation room, where they watch a six-minute video about the center and what they can expect. Then they ride in a glass elevator up the inside of the rotunda—like astronauts being lifted to the top of a gantry tower next to their rocket—to a briefing room, where they learn more about the mission and their individual jobs.

Half the class members are assigned to the control room, where they manage the mission from the “ground.” The others are seated inside the Earth-Space Transit Module to “blast off” in a realistic launch sequence that takes them to their Earth-orbiting space station. Stereo speakers provide realistic sound and vibration effects, and students look through a viewport to see the Earth as it appears from space.

Next, they enter the space station through an air lock and perform their assigned duties, such as communicating with the control room, navigating the craft, testing hazardous material, conducting medical experiments, and operating life-support systems. Students perform experiments such as measuring the density of meteorites and identifying gases by analyzing their light spectrum.

Midway through the mission, an “emergency” is introduced into the exercise that requires the crew to evacuate the space station. Then they trade places with the team in mission control—a scenario that allows all participants to spend part of their time in “space.”

“This is a wonderful, valuable experience,” said Tamara Swindler, who organized a visit by a group of home-school students. She said she’s impressed with the real science that’s taught: “It’s not just a ride at Disneyland.”

Challenger Learning Center of Arizona

http://www.azchallenger.org