NASA has stopped sending shuttles into space, but D.C. students soon may get their chance to experience life among the stars.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray plans to open a space education center, featuring a space station simulator, in the DC Public Schools system, he revealed in his fiscal 2014 budget. Though the so-called Challenger Center for Space Education does not have a designated location, it is expected to include "a two-room simulator that consists of a space station, complete with communications, medical, life and computer science equipment, and a mission control room patterned after NASA's Johnson Space Center and a space lab ready for exploration," according to the budget proposal.
It is expected to cost $1.5 million to design, $1 million of which has already been approved in a previous year's budget. Gray's fiscal 2014 budget proposal includes the remaining $500,000.
The facility would be part of the national Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which oversees a network of centers offering programs in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. There are 41 centers across the United States, as well as one each in Canada, South Korea and Britain.
Prince George's County Public Schools has operated one of the centers since 1989. The simulator, located at the Howard B. Owens Science Center in Lanham, caters largely to sixth-grade students.
Following the instructions of the teacher -- or "lead flight commander" -- students enter the S.S. Friendship through an airlock door. The students spend two hours performing a variety of experiments -- studying magnetism in rocks, for example, and body weight in zero gravity. While half the class spends an hour in the mock space station, the other half is in mission control, watching the action on Mars via two cameras.
"This is a very good simulation of what it would be like in real life, if they were really in space and really in mission control, which in this case happens to be on Mars," said Russell Waugh, the program's outreach teacher. "This is based on a futuristic style of spacecraft that we're imagining in the year 2076."
Unlike most of the existing centers, the District's "will not only serve D.C. students and teachers, but will also be a national flagship STEM education facility," said Challenger Center spokeswoman Lisa Vernal. "The center will include the next-generation Challenger Learning Center, a model for all of our centers around the globe, and an environment to support workforce development; a state-of-the-art STEM-focused research and development laboratory; and a professional development facility for educators."
Once implemented, DCPS will work to align the program's offerings with science curricula, said DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz, though she said Gray's office is leading the project.
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the mayor is excited about the program and directed additional questions to the national program office.