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LOCKPORT – After years of financial struggle, the Challenger Learning Center is finally positioned for liftoff.

The Lockport affiliate of a national chain of science and technology centers with the theme of space travel, aimed at inspiring children to take an interest in science and technology, recently received two space shuttle simulators and is in the process of installing them for a planned opening in late spring.

Kathy M. Michaels, a retired Maryvale Central Schools science teacher who heads the Lockport center, signed a 10-year lease with the city’s Greater Lockport Development Corp. last summer on 5,500 square feet of usable first-floor space in Building 1 at Harrison Place, Walnut and Washburn streets.

The lease totaled 7,900 square feet, but much of that is access to common areas in the former Harrison Radiator plant, now home to about 30 businesses.

The Challenger Centers are named in memory of the Space Shuttle Challenger that exploded shortly after liftoff in January 1986. Among the astronauts killed was New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, thus establishing the permanent link between education and the name “Challenger.”

The idea of placing a Challenger Center in Lockport was first suggested in 2006. For years, the project languished for lack of funds.

“That’s actually very normal,” said Martin Schwartz, director of community relations for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, who came to Lockport to see the shipments arrive. “Most of our centers take about four years from the time they begin to raise funds to the time that the center opens.”

However, the state Dormitory Authority has approved a $250,000 grant, which Michaels said last week was about to be deposited into the center’s account. That money, along with smaller grants from the Grigg-Lewis Foundation and the M&T Bank Charitable Foundation, helped get the project to the point of nearly opening its core mission. The used simulators cost $300,000, with the Grigg-Lewis money being used as a down payment and the Dormitory Authority funds accounting for most of the remainder.

“This will complete us. We need a little more to complete the buildout of the space station,” Michaels said. The space station room, in which the simulators will be placed, is still under construction, but the station will be 32 by 32 feet, with 8-foot ceilings.

“Part of the material is for Mission Control, and the other part is for the space station,” Michaels said. “It accommodates 16 to 20 students, each at their own station.”

There will be a medical station, with actual blood-pressure cuffs; three stations showing the use of the shuttle’s famous “robot arm,” and other stations with “a glove box, like you see on ‘NCIS,’ where the kids can reach in and manipulate materials. They build a probe, they test various pieces of the probe, and at least one is bad, so they have to do a repair,” Michaels said.

The center’s main space already is being used as a home for two Junior Lego League robotics teams, and is interested in helping preschoolers and middle schoolers get involved in Lego design. Also, a high school robotics competition was recently held at the center, Michaels said.

The Lockport site, if approved, would be the only Junior Lego center between Rochester and Ohio, Michaels said.

The space station simulators, which arrived by truck in four large shipping containers, came from a now-closed Challenger Center in Birmingham, Ala. Being able to buy used instead of new was a major financial boon for the Lockport operation, cutting costs by about half.

“The whole project we budgeted at $1.2 million, and we’re bringing it at in around half a million,” Michaels said. “That’s $300,000 for the simulators and $200,000 for the buildout. We still need funds for the buildout on the space station. We’ve got several grants out. The duct work was donated. “We had to jackhammer the floors, redo the floors completely, which we weren’t planning on in our budget. We’re reusing the drop ceilings, we’re reusing some of the fluorescent lights. Any of the piping we had to cut out, we recycled that, and the money went back into the center.”

It will go by the name of Challenger Learning Center of Orleans, Niagara and Erie. The nearest centers are in Rochester, at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany and at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto.

Schwartz said the network, formed in 1988, has a total of 42 centers in the United States, Canada, South Korea and Britain.

“We license our product and sell the physical parts of the learning center,” Schwartz said. “We provide technical assistance, training, help in raising funds.

“The whole idea is to excite kids in the local area to get involved in enjoying science so when they’re in high school and college, they take the programs and hopefully get into the science and technology jobs that are growing here.”

“You never know who you’ll inspire,” said Paul J. Krupinski, of Cheektowaga, who for the last 21 years has been taking a portable simulated planetarium to local schools.

“This year, I had a third-grader after one of my shows come up to me and say, ‘You know, you’ve inspired me to become as astronaut.’ A little girl! It made my day,” said Krupinski, a founding member of the Challenger Center.

“Mr. K’s Mobile Dome Planetarium” could be set up for the use of kids visiting the Challenger Center when he’s not taking it on the road.

“It’s an inflatable pressurized room. It seats 25 to 30 people, which is about one classroom,” Krupinski said.

The 16-foot diameter, 11-foot-high inflated dome can be adapted to show the relative locations of planets for a basic astronomy lesson, Krupinski said.

“It’s basically a pressurized tent,” he said. “There’s other equipment, like a star projector or a video projector.”

And when he’s done, the dome folds up small enough to fit into a hockey duffel bag.

Perhaps, Michaels and Krupinski hope, the United States can someday return to its traditional role as the leader in manned spaceflight.

Michaels said, “It’s not in the Obama budget, but it’s in the Chinese budget, it’s in the Indian budget, it’s in the French budget.”

“But it’s not in the American budget,” Krupinski said.

“It’s going to have to be,” Michaels said.

Michaels said she has many ideas for educational programs at the center, from helping Scouts earn robotics or astronomy merit badges, to reaching out to home-schooling parents to enhance their children’s science lessons.

Michaels said, “There’s so many possibilities. Whatever we see as a need in the community, we’re going to try to address, particularly in our after-school programs. This is the poorest section of Lockport, and Lockport has more people below the poverty line (as a percentage of population) than Buffalo or Niagara Falls.

“That’s not a fact that a lot of people register. And the household income is lower. So we’re needed to give these kids hope, to give them aspirations and dreams.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com