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NORMAL -- The Challenger Learning Center has started launching missions from its new site, nearly two years after formalizing an agreement to join Heartland Community College.

On Monday morning, eighth-grader Jackie Walters of Bloomington was among Chiddix Junior High School students involved with "Voyage to Mars" at the Community Education Center.

"Mars Control: This is MTV. We are ready to receive. Over," she said, speaking into a headset on the Mars Transportation Vehicle.

Sitting in the classroom-sized "vehicle" with Walters were a dozen other eighth-graders, playing jobs involving space-probe engineering, hydroponics, robotics, medical effects of space travel and more.

Down the hall, another dozen students staffed mission control, solving problems with their peers down the hall via computers, video cameras, and audio headsets.

To Walters, who took a similar field trip as a fifth-grader, the most noticeable difference at the new center is technology upgrades.

"There's more with e-mail and less paper, and the graphics are a lot better," she said.

Stacey Shrewsbury, lead flight director at CLC, said high-definition monitors and some new software programs have modernized the lab's feel.

Built into the ground floor of Heartland's latest facility, the simulator is a series of connected labs creating the 21st-century educational experience.

"They've done a really great job at making it realistic," said Joe Peebles of Bloomington, a chaperone for his son Ethan's class trip.

Teachers LeAnn Fujimoto and Cheryl Corbitt say taking students to Challenger missions helps kids apply lessons. "It's taking what you learn in the classroom and making it come to life," said Fujimoto. The experience also offers students sneak peeks into career possibilities, she said.

A week ago, Sugar Creek Elementary students helped Challenger staff test-drive the system in the first "Rendezvous with a Comet" mission.

The Challenger center is one of about 50 in North America and the United Kingdom. The name honors the NASA crew killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

The move to the Normal campus followed a 2007 proposal to shift the center's operations from Prairie Aviation Museum, which couldn't financially sustain the center.

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