Orion spacecraft, NASA astronauts make landing at Tallahassee’s Challenger Learning Center

Artist's rendering of the proposed Orion spacecraft

With NASA moving the spacecraft that could eventually shuttle astronauts into deep space from California to Florida for further testing, the feeling was: Why not show it off along the way?

Thus a road show, with a pricey piece of NASA hardware on public display for two days recently outside the Challenger Learning Center in downtown Tallahassee.

Known officially as a multipurpose crew vehicle, it’s an old-school-looking capsule that resembles the bowl-shaped ones used in the Apollo and Mercury programs.

But as part of the Orion program, the successor to the space shuttle program, the new spacecraft has state-of-the-art propulsion, life support, thermal protection and avionics systems, according to NASA officials.

"We are so honored that NASA and Lockheed Martin chose the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering’s Challenger Learning Center to host the Orion vehicle," said Michelle Personette, director of the center. "Very few cities in the nation were able to provide this not only to the students but to the community at large."

Visitors to the Challenger Center on June 24-25 weren’t able go into the capsule, which is a test-ready mockup of one that will deliver four astronauts at a time into space. But they could peek inside for free and talk to engineers who have worked on it.

The capsule was used in 2010 to test whether a mission could be safely aborted on a launch pad or in flight. During the test flight in New Mexico, a launch abort system propelled the spacecraft off the launch pad to a speed of almost 445 mph in 3 seconds as it shot a mile into the air. The spacecraft then parachuted to the desert floor.

Accompanying the module to Tallahassee were NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers from the Pad Abort 1 Flight test team, who discussed the future of human space exploration and answered questions.

Two NASA astronauts, Charles Hobaugh and Jeff Williams, were also present on June 24 to hold question and answer sessions with area children and the general public.

In addition, the Challenger Learning Center held special screenings of the IMAX movie "Hubble 3D" on both days. Children accompanied by an adult were admitted to the screenings without charge.

Orion’s Tallahassee stop was the third and final one on its journey from California to the Kennedy Space Center. Over a two-week period, it also visited museums in Tucson, Ariz., and Austin, Texas.

The Challenger Learning Center is the K-12 outreach facility of the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering and uses aerospace as a theme to foster long-term interest in math, science, engineering and technology; create positive learning experiences; and motivate students to pursue higher education and careers in these fields. To accomplish this mission, the center features a state-of-the-art Space Mission Simulator and utilizes the immersive experience of an IMAX 3D Theatre and the Downtown Digital Dome Theatre & Planetarium.