Ground Control to Major Tom

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

We all know that Major Tom didn't need years of intensive training and a doctorate in astrophysics to float around on a tin can far above the world. If it's true that the song is some sort of drug-use metaphor, he didn't even have to leave his hotel room. Well, guess what, Junior Spaceketeers: You, too, can blast off into outer space without leaving Peoria, now that the Challenger Learning Center of Arizona has opened its doors to the public. And no pharmaceuticals are needed, either.

The center achieved liftoff on July 23 here in Arizona, marking the 41st such site in the U.S. The idea behind these interactive space-science centers is more than just an infomercial for NASA. The Learning Center represents a living memorial to the crew members of the ill-fated Challenger Space Shuttle who died in January 1986. The families of the seven astronauts wanted some kind of tribute, but instead of some boring statue, they struck on a more exciting idea -- build a place where kids and adults could learn and become inspired about space exploration. After all, isn't that what the astronauts died for?

The Arizona version looks unobtrusive on the outside, but on the inside you'll find re-creations of Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Room and an orbiting space station. These are high-tech simulators where earthbound folks like you and me can actually become part of the space program for an afternoon. The center is set up for teams of people to work together to solve real-life math, science and communication problems during simulated missions. You actually get to say things like, "EECOM, can I have a go/no-go on launch?" How cool is that? If this doesn't inspire your youngsters to want a career in space, nothing will. As I write this, I'm waiting for the NASA employment people to return my call.

If you are thinking about going, do it right. To get the most out of your visit, you have to have a group of at least 20. Call ahead and make a reservation for one of the mini-missions. If you're lucky enough to be a teacher, you can sign your class up for the full-bore two-hour mission. You and the members of your group will take on the roles of the various mission team members both on the ground and out in space. Using the facilities, simulators can have such high-tech adventures as rendezvousing with a comet or returning to the moon, or perhaps manning a mission to Mars. If you can't scrape up a group of 20 or more folks ages 10 and up, it is still an interesting place to visit. You can check out the artwork of Robert McCall, one of NASA's official concept artists and a Paradise Valley resident, and chat with the informative and enthusiastic employees. But if possible, it's worth it to round up the Scouts or Campfire kids or even your office cronies and give the center a call for the full space-mission experience.