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NORMAL — Friday was both a day of remembrance and a day of celebration at the Challenger Learning Center at Heartland Community College.

About 40 students from Roanoke-Benson Junior High took part in simulated space missions — as more than 60,000 students have done before them in the nearly 12 years since missions began at the center's first home at the former airport in Bloomington.

The Roanoke-Benson students' mission took place on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the day the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off, killing all seven astronauts on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

But thanks to the vision of the crew's families, the educational mission of the Challenger crew continues in centers such as the one in Normal and others in 27 states, four countries and three continents.

“Every day we are reminding the students what Challenger was all about,” said Stacey Shrewsbury, lead flight director. “We talk about the passion of the crew … and encourage students to pursue their passion.”

Students who come to the center take on various roles in “mission control” or aboard a “spacecraft,” performing tasks involving math, science and communication. Numerous challenges come up during the mission to which students must respond as warning alarms sound.

Twelve-year-old Riley Beer, a seventh-grader at the junior high, said, “It felt real.”

Fellow seventh-grader Wyeth Thompson, 13, also of Roanoke, said, “I liked being a team and saving lives when things went wrong,” adding that the mission reinforced the importance of working together.

Pam Hummel was in second-grade at the time of the Challenger tragedy. Now she teaches science at Roanoke-Benson and has been taking her students to the center since it first opened at the airport in 2004.

Hummel said her students show more enthusiasm for science after they participate in a mission at the Challenger Learning Center.

“It makes them take what we do in class more seriously,” she said.

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The missions are run by three flight directors — Susan Evens, Libby Torbeck and Joe Vadalla. Friday also was a day for celebrating each of them hitting or nearing their 1,000-mission milestone.

Evens, wearing a photo button with a large picture of McAuliffe on her flight director jumpsuit, said, “It's pretty cool to be part of honoring this crew.”

Vadalla, who joined the Challenger Learning Center team after retiring as a teacher at Normal's Northpoint Elementary School, said the best part of the job is “seeing the enthusiasm and their excitement when they (the students) walk through the door.”

After more than six years and 1,054 missions, Torbeck said her job is still exciting and inspiring.

“It's a new group of kids every time and another chance to share the Challenger legacy.”

The space program is not in the news as much as it was in its early days. John Glenn, the last of the original Mercury astronauts, died last month. Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died Jan. 16.

“It's definitely a new era,” said Torbeck, noting that the space program is still moving forward, although “maybe not as fast as a space lover like me would like it to.”

“NASA is working on the next spacecraft and these are the kids who are going to build it,” she said.

Several students participating in Friday's missions said they'd like to work as scientists or in the space program, but not necessarily as astronauts.

“It takes a lot of training,” said seventh-grader Porter Hoffman, 12, of Roanoke. “You'd miss your family for a long time.”

At the end of the mission, Shrewsbury told the students, “Keep learning as much as you can. … Every one of you will have an amazing adventure in your future.”

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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