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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thoughts on the Space Center's 21st Anniversary.

The Best Way I Know to Visualize My Life Directing the Space Center Over the Last 21 Years.

Hello Troops,
Twenty one years have come and gone since the Space Center opened its doors for the first time. The Space Center will quietly mark this milestone on November 8th. I remember November 8, 1990 very well. I was nervous. I had doubts. I questioned whether I knew what I was doing. Others had thoughts concerning my sanity. We held an open house that evening. Hundreds toured the infant Voyager. Many asked what it was all about. I said something about math and science but deep down had no idea where exactly the dart would land.

The idea of having a permanent simulator built at the school started with my Young Astronaut Club and a trip to Japan we won to attend the first International Young Astronauts Convention. While there I met a Catholic nun who worked at a school with a small shuttle simulator. I was intrigued and wanted one for my Young Astronaut Club at Central. Suddenly the dream took on its own life. I wanted a simulator of my own, a futuristic ship called Pegasus, named after the classroom ship I used to teach my space science lessons since 1983. The Pegasus was to be built where the Odyssey is now. After many grants and countless rejections with few approvals, I raised enough money to build a much bigger ship, the Voyager. It would be built into a new addition I would build at Central Elementary. So many people were drawn into the project. Great amounts of money and manpower were spent. It had to succeed, but I didn't know what `it' was. Failure wasn't an option. I didn't sleep well those first years. My health suffered. My poor heart never completely recovered. The anxiety attacks, I'm happy to say, lasted three years and ended.

I had a building, a futuristic simulator, but hadn't settled on how I would used it to teach. At first I envisioned a science lab on board a futuristic spaceship. That idea never took hold. I experiment with a scientific mission to Mars. Our field trip classes flew to Mars at warp speed using laughably simple HyperCard controls I programmed. Once there, we used a NASA Mars laser disc for special effects. We flew around the planet learning about its climate and features. Back then I stood on the bridge next to the Tactical screen. My 6th grade staff (2 kids) sat in the
control room listening and waiting for clues on when to play and pause. It was primitive at best when compared to what we do now.

I felt something was missing after a few Mars mission field trips . The students showed little excitement. They were motionless bodies sitting at the computers listening to me. I was the person in command giving the captain orders on where to go and what to do. It wasn't working.

I thought back to my days in the classroom, running exciting episodic missions on a Star Trek like ship over several months every school hear. I ran these simulations in conjunction with my space science units. I sat behind my desk with an overhead projector, boom box, and plastic transparencies. My students sat at their desks running the starship with poster board controls. Then the idea came - recreate the magic. Take what I had already proven successful and put it into the new Voyager. I took a few of my "Star Trek" videos and, using two of the school's VCR's, I edited a new ending to my Mars mission. A Romulan Warbird arrived while the students orbited Mars demanding the students surrender the planet to the Romulan Empire. It was a crazy idea but crazy ideas built the Center. I guess being willing to act on insane impulses is a character trait I should wear with pride.

The idea of adding the Romulan scene at the end of the mission worked well. The kids got excited to see the Romulan ship. The little battle thrown into the end of the Mars mission was successful. It convinced me that my idea of taking a class on an EdVenture into space would work with the general public like it did with my captive class.

I sat down and wrote another mission called "Epsilon". It was a story of a planet in the
Klingon Neutral Zone. Half the planet was under Federation control and the other was under Klingon control. The treaty, allowing joint control of the planet, was soon to be reviewed. The planet would be awarded to the government that demonstrated it could best care for the
planet's population.

The story had the Voyager entering the Neutral Zone bringing a new kind of wheat to the planet. This new wheat was genetically engineered to grow well in the planet's harsh climate. The Voyager had a few close calls on the way to the planet and a few others while in orbit. At the end of the mission our field trips left the Voyager excited and wanting to return. I knew I had found the formula for success. The rest, as they say, is history.

Nearly 300,000 students have attended the Space Center since November 8, 1990.
Imagine the length of a 300,000 student line! We've done well.

Here we are 21 years later. Our one ship is now five. Our stories are much more complicated. Our simulators are ten times more sophisticated. Our work force has exploded. I happy I've been blessed to work with so many fine people. I enjoy keeping my hand on the helm of the Voyager. I've never lost my love for directing missions.

The years have taken their toll. I'm getting older and gray, but the magic is still there. Someone once asked me If I would ever leave the Center and move on to greener pastures. I've thought about it over the years. I knew I could get a higher paying job somewhere else that required half the hours I was working weekly at the Space Center, but the rewards, both mentally and emotionally, would pale in comparison to working at something I created.

Sometimes, when everyone is gone, I walk up the steps to the Voyager's Bridge and sit in the Captain's chair under the dim lights. I look at the walls. I imagine the voices of 280,000 children swirling around the room - locked forever in the very sheet rock of the ship. I look at the left wing and see the original staff training crews before the days of training tapes and mp3 players. I see Jacob Bartlett over in the corner asleep when he should be doing his job as a bridge staff. I hear Russell Smith downstairs playing the blind doctor. I watch a much younger Mr. Schuler coming up the stairs in full Star Trek uniform. I hear a child's voice shout, "Admiral on the Bridge!" I still see that silly mask popping up over the loft and scaring Security. I hear Lorraine downstairs in the crew quarters working with the spill over field trip kid. I hear the screams, the laughing, and the quiet that came from sadness when the Paklid Blossom died in a fiery crash into a planet so many years ago. The memories are good. They are an elixir for the soul. I think I'll stay awhile longer if you'll forgive my selfishness.

I think about the future. Will what we do today be as obsolete as the VCR player in the future? Some day video game technology may become so evolved that children will do missions at home - connected to some kind of virtual reality machine. The computer will play the Flight Director, telling the story and reacting to the kid's decisions. The students will sit wearing goggles showing them the bridge of some futuristic ship. Gloves will give them the feel of working the controls. Our simulators will become relics of the past.

That day may come. But until it does, we will keep our hands on the helm. We will tell our stories until the last mission is told and the Voyager's lights dim for the last time. Perhaps the Voyager will still be around decades from now as a museum today's campers will visit with their grandchildren. The sounds of our voices heard against the background music will accentuate their grandparent's stories of their field trips to this magical place.

Thank you everyone for Twenty-one years. Volunteers, thank you for volunteering hours of your time each month. Staff, thank you for working at a place with low pay and unpredictable hours. Together, we are creating lasting memories in the hearts and minds of our students.

Mr. Williamson
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