Just before she handed the George H.W. Bush Award to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Dr. June Scobee Rodgers told the crowd gathered for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education Conference at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, “This is an eagle, and we are the wind beneath her wings.”
Sullivan is the first American woman to walk in space and the current assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and predication, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is the third recipient of the award, presented to “an individual who demonstrates a commitment to Challenger Center and to keeping the spirit of education as part of the NASA space program alive.”
She was at the kitchen table of Scobee Rodgers when a small group dreamed of how the Challenger Center would lift hands-on learning to a new level and how it would honor the seven crew members who died in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger/STS-51L exploded just after liftoff. Scobee Rodgers is the widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee and founder of Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
With just a “scribble pad and paper” between them, Sullivan recalled their desire to “touch everyone” and energize math and science education.
“June watched how astronauts go about learning with purpose-driven eagerness,” Sullivan said. The group wanted to inspire “the purposeful hunger to learn.”
With architectural proposals reaching the rafters of Scobee Rodgers’ home, the group decided not to build one building but rather a network to inspire school children and adults. Schools, college campuses and other community partners were part of the plan. Sullivan said they wanted to “run new music through the existing speakers.”
In 1988, the first Challenger Center opened in Houston. Today, there are 48 around the globe, including the Challenger Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, established in 1994, as well as facilities in Canada, South Korea and the United Kingdom. More than 4 million students have actively participated at the centers as they have used equipment, solved problems and became one with the space experience.
Sullivan acknowledged the number of innovators in the world is small. But she said it’s easy to spot the ones with that kind of potential. They are the children in sixth and seventh grade who crush the PSAT, relish competition and crave the testing of ideas.
She says the Challenger Center offers “running room” for kids like that.
“The Challenger Center model was wildly ahead of its time. What is cavalierly called distance learning today—we imagined it,” Sullivan said.