Tallahassee will pause Saturday to remember the astronauts who died on board the shuttle Challenger 20 years ago. The astronauts’ families wanted a living tribute to them, not a stone memorial, and the Challenger Center in Tallahassee is just that.
Sixth graders from Fairview Middle School were on a virtual shuttle mission, launching a probe into the tail of a comet.
There are 52 Challenger Centers nationwide aimed at boosting children's interest in science and technology, an idea hatched by the families of the astronauts themselves as a way to perpetuate a mission which carried the first teacher into space.
Susan Borland, Challenger Center Flight Director, says, "Thank goodness the Challenger is no longer just a tragedy, the Challenger through the Challenger Center Network, it's used as an inspiration, not just memorialized as a day in history."
The Challenger Centers face a challenge indeed. The National Science Foundation reports the U.S. now ranks 17th in the world in the number of young people earning science and engineering degrees. Thirty years ago the U.S. was in the top three.
Ching-Jen Chen, Dean of FAMU-FSU Engineering School, says, "You kind of feel a little bit scared. Annually we graduate 60,000 or 62,000 engineers of all the engineering programs. China will probably outdo you 10 times. "
What's at stake he says are high paying jobs that are increasingly being outsourced to Asia and making sure the U.S. maintains its lead in sciences like nano-technology, software engineering and more.
The Florida Board of Governors has noted the need for more engineers. It's on a list of three critical needs this year, and while enrollment at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is going up, that's not the case at many schools nationwide.
Norm Thagard, an astronaut, says, "A lot of engineering colleges nationwide have seen a decline in enrollment, and I think that should concern everyone if you're trying to maintain an edge in technology."
Irene Klay, a middle school science teacher, says, "We just seem to be the stepchild. I feel like some of the other subjects are getting more attention, especially with the FCAT."
Middle school science teacher Irene Klay says the sciences have been ignored for far too long, and though none of these children were alive that fateful day in January 1986, the Challenger's mission to inspire more young scientists has landed in their laps.
Michelle Personette, Challenger Center Director, says, "These were seven great Americans that really gave their lives for future exploration, for children to be inquisitive learners. That's what we want to focus on. These astronauts perished, but yet had a dream."
Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the accident. There will be a memorial service at the Challenger Center in Tallahassee to honor the seven astronauts who died aboard that shuttle mission. It gets started at 11:30. They'll have a missing man flyover, and at 11:39, the moment of the explosion, many downtown churches will be ringing their bells.