Festivities abound last week at San Antonio College as officials, political leaders, former astronauts and community members came together to celebrate the opening of the Scobee Education Center. Built around the footprint of a 50-plus-year-old campus planetarium, the three-story Scobee Center has plenty of natural lighting and a futuristic exterior. Alamo Colleges allocated $5 million in tax notes more than two years ago for development of a facility that would provide the public, schools and other organizations hands-on space science lessons. A capital campaign group has just reached its goal of raising $5 million to help make the Scobee Center fiscally self-sustaining. After being closed for two years, the newly renovated planetarium has enhanced programs with state-of-the-art technology. SAC relocated the observatory and telescope, previously street level, to the top of a rocket-shaped structure with a star deck. Then there’s the Challenger Learning Center, which first arrived in San Antonio at Brooks City Base more than 10 years ago. Now the national nonprofit that develops Challenger Learning Centers has come up with a redesign and San Antonio is the first in the nation to have a redesigned CLC. The layout is larger, more state-of-the-art and offers more interactive lessons meant to inspire young students and teachers about Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum. The Challenger Center provides a simulated mission with rooms for pre- and post-flight briefing, mission control, ground transport, a decontamination room, and a simulated launch, reentry, and a docking with the International Space Station. There is also a space station replica, where various lessons using custom software and real NASA data take place. On average it can cost a visiting group $500 to undergo a whole mission, which takes two and a half hours.
However, the Challenger Center isn’t the exclusive domain of school tours. Officials say teams from corporations and other organizations could find the lessons useful in enhancing their teamwork and collaborative problem-solving efforts. The floor of the original planetarium was removed and repoured 20 inches lower to accommodate more seats in the new star deck observatory. A 26-foot diameter dome with a retractable opening shelters the college’s 10-inch diameter retractor telescope. Rooftop solar panels help power lighting around the facility. In previous years, star parties could only take place on street level at the old observatory/planetarium. Now they can be held atop the star deck. Inside the overall Scobee Center, a large model of the space shuttle Challenger flies above the planetarium. As it looks toward the future of space science education, the Scobee Center pays tribute to the past. Not long after the January 1986 shuttle Challenger disaster, SAC renamed the planetarium after one of the seven crewmembers, Francis “Dick” Scobee. It was considered an appropriate memorial because Scobee served at Kelly Air Force Base. In his off-duty time, he attended SAC, where he met Virginia June Kent, his future wife. They married and had two children. Following the Challenger explosion, June Scobee and surviving family members of the other astronauts tried to see how best to publicly keep alive the memory of their fallen loved ones alive through education.
They gathered resources and created the Challenger Learning Center, of which there are currently 44 around the nation and abroad. Remarried, June Scobee Rodgers served as honorary chairwoman of the group raising funds to make the new local Scobee Center self-sustaining financially. Last week during the opening ceremony, Cub Scouts placed wreaths in memory of the seven astronauts who died aboard the Challenger. Choir students from three Southwest ISD schools named in memory of three crew members sang “God Bless the USA.” Inside the first floor foyer, visitors may gaze upon a model of a space suit, and photos and plaques that act as landmarks in American space exploration history. Visit www.alamo.edu/sac/challenger for more information.