BLOOMINGTON - Late last month, students from Peoria's Lindbergh Middle School took their turn on one of the more popular Twin City field trips: joining about 20,000 visitors who have taken part in simulated missions at the Challenger Learning Center at Prairie Aviation Museum.
On this visit, sixth-graders sat on stools poised in front of computers, video monitors and other "space station" equipment. All eyes were on Janet Moore, the center's lead flight director.
"Listen: Mission control is sending us a message," said Moore, dressed in a NASA-like blue jumpsuit and pointing to sixth-grader Josh Carter of Peoria, who waved from the communication panel station.
Red warning lights flashed. Emergency alarms sounded.
Time was running out.
Using math and science skills, students problem-solved their way to safety. Warning bells stopped, lights returned to normal, and the kids cheered.
The crew's fate here depended on creative problem-solving under stress - a handy lesson for the Challenger center itself as it faces its own battle.
Here, no red warning lights flash, no emergency alarms sound. But for the educational center that arrived to great fanfare four years ago, time is running out.
The center is looking for a new owner and a solution to its million-dollar debt.
Will Heartland Community College in Normal be part of the answer?
Realizing Challenger's load
This spring, the Prairie Aviation Museum, owner of the center, announced it no longer could afford to keep the center.
Nearly $900,000 remains to be paid on the museum's $1.1 million loan, which was borrowed to cover the center's startup costs. That sum, combined with other financial woes, led to the realization that the museum could no longer keep the center and be sure it would be able to maintain other exhibits, too, said Cathy Bissoondial, museum board president.
Challenger missions continue, and business operates as usual. Behind the scenes, however, museum leaders are playing beat the clock - trying to find a new proprietor for the center before bankers come knocking.
"We wouldn't cut ties unless we were forced to," Bissoondial said. But the museum doesn't intend to wait for that to happen. Finding the center a new home is a proactive way to ensure it remains a part of the Twin Cities' future, she said.
The center's lease runs through 2010 in its former Central Illinois Regional Airport space.
"Some money is coming in from missions. That will keep us going for a while, and there have been some small fund-raising events, too," Bissoondial said.
But these are all temporary Band-Aids.
The museum's hope, she said, is that a permanent solution can be found at Heartland.
In March, the Prairie Aviation Museum proposal formally came before the Heartland board of trustees at its monthly meeting.
The proposal - which calls for Heartland to take over the center and move its simulated classrooms to the Raab Road campus - drew mixed response from trustees.
Most praised the center's educational focus as one that fits well with Heartland's mission. And they called it a benefit to the community.
Concerns about CLC's debt
But several trustees also voiced concern about the $900,000 debt and who would take that on.
Officials with both institutions are reluctant to discuss possible solutions, especially regarding the outstanding loan. And neither side has a timeline for a decision.
"Everyone involved in these discussions realizes time is a factor," said Mary Beth Trakinat, Heartland vice president of continuing education. "The discussions are moving forward. But a big piece of the exploration has been talking with community leaders about ways to address the debt."
She said Heartland is willing to do its part to save the community resource. But she declined to say if that meant Heartland would take on any of the outstanding loan payments.
"I'm not in a position to comment on the numbers," Trakinat said.
Debt is only one piece of that proposition, and other factors involved with an operating budget also need to be considered, she noted.
In the meantime, Trakinat and her colleagues are researching how dozens of other Challenger centers in the United States function.
She also is spearheading talks with community leaders in education, government and business, such as Mike Malone, executive director of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce.
Malone said though his organization has taken part in some very informal meetings, the chamber has stuck with an observational role so far.
"From the chamber's perspective, we do really want the Challenger Learning Center to remain viable, and I think it can stay here. We just need to find a solution, and no silver bullet has been found yet," Malone said.
Bissoondial and Trakinat agreed that one possibility is reigniting a Challenger fund-raising campaign. The original 2003 campaign, organized to pay off the $1.1 million loan, quietly fell off the radar and never materialized.
Finding a community solution
If a community solution could be found that brings the center back to a financially healthy state, the college would be an ideal match for facility, Trakinat said.
Heartland's Youth Enrichment Program has offered space center classes the past few summers. And both groups want to improve science and math literacy within the community.
Both also recognize that providing more workers with better technology skills to the community is a growing need.
Projections based on current annual budgets indicate the Challenger center could someday be self-sufficient, Trakinat said.
The center brings in about $260,000 annually - 70 percent of that from mission fees, said Ben Clawson, a Prairie Aviation Museum board member. However, expenditures now are $400,000, he said.
"Take away the loan payments and the lease payments, and that (expenditures) would be closer to $145,000," he said.
And with Heartland preparing to construct more buildings, space could be reserved in its planned 29,000-square-foot community education center.
The million-dollar question looms as the biggest hurdle. Trakinat, Heartland President Jon Astroth and HCC board chairman Harry Dunham all have said the debt can't solely be Heartland's burden.
But the problems didn't cross the minds of the sixth-graders visiting from Peoria in May.
In that simulation, students were busy realizing math and science can jump off the pages of a book and take them into space, Bissoondial said.
Teacher Gail Illuzi said the field trip marked the 10th group she had led to the Bloomington site since 2004.
"They really feel like what scientists, engineers, someone in the medical field, experiences on the job," she said. Illuzi smiled from a distance as she watched student Aswathy Krishnakumar start a test at the biomedical station.
"Anything that excites them trips a switch," Bissoondial said. "It shows the value of what they've been learning in class."
On a mission
Leaders of the Challenger Learning Center at Prairie Aviation Museum want to be sure people know that despite talks about changes for the center, missions and other educational programs at the Bloomington site continue. Following are some details about the center:
What: A hands-on learning center that opened in December 2003 at the former Central Illinois Regional Airport site. The nonprofit organization is owned by the Prairie Aviation Museum. Teachers lead simulated space missions using a control room, space shuttle area and space transporter. Since its opening, the center has served about 20,000 clients.
Where: 2901 E. Empire St., Bloomington.
Proposal: The museum board has asked Heartland Community College to take over the Challenger center. No decision has been made, but Heartland President Jon Astroth has said the school is interested after the community collectively solves a near $900,000 debt originating from startup costs.
How to contact: (309) 661-1621; www.challengerlearningcenter.com
National affiliation: The center is one of 52 such sites affiliated with the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va. Following the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion, the families of the deceased shuttle crew created the organization. For information, visit www.challenger.org
Bloomington mission topics
The center offers three main mission scenarios for various groups. Each makes use of the center's mission control room, space station and transport module simulators:
Voyage to Mars: In 2076, crews travel routinely between Earth and Mars. In this scenario, a Mars control team is anxious to get home after two years on the red planet. Members of that team direct a Mars replacement crew through its arrival in Martian orbit, ready to take over the mission.
Rendevous with a Comet: In the not-too-distant future, a team of scientists and engineers serve as astronauts and mission controllers on a mission to explore comets. The goal is for mission control staff on Earth to communicate with astronauts on the space station. The two groups need to plot a course to cross paths with a comet and launch a probe to collect scientific data on the object.
Micronaut Mission: A local option since September, the newest offering is geared toward younger students. It uses only the transport module classroom in its exploration of basic solar system lessons. It is offered for third and fourth grades, and plans call for a curriculum to expand this to even younger groups.
SOURCES: Challenger Learning Center staff; Prairie Aviation Museum board members
Summer in space
The Challenger Learning Center at Prairie Aviation Museum offers several summer camps in collaboration with Heartland Community College's Youth Enrichment Program. Other summer programs can be scheduled for social or business purposes at the center, by request. For information call (309) 661-1621. To be eligible for activities below, students should be entering grade listed:
Summer camps…..Dates…..Locations…..Age group…..Cost
Meteor explorer…..July 9-11…..CLC, Pepsi Ice Center…..Kindergarteners, first-graders…..$100
Young astronomer…..July 11-13…..CLC, ISU Planetarium…..Second- and third-graders…..$150
Robotic engineer…..June 11-15…..CLC…..fourth- and fifth-graders…..$150
Shuttle pilot…..June 18-22, June 25-29…..CLC…..sixth- and seventh-graders…..$250
Moon survival…..July 16-20…..CLC, Timber Pointe camp…..eighth- and ninth-graders…..$250
International space underwater station…..July 23-27…..Clarion Hotel Bloomington…..seventh grade through adult…..$250