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It's ignition and liftoff for the Challenger Learning Center's new Executive Director Alan Hanstein

Challenger Learning Center Executive Director Alan Hanstein poses proudly before the facility's iconic exterior wall sculpture that depiccts various mathematical equations involved in spaceflight and astrophysics.
Mark Wallheiser
FAMU/FSU College of Engineering
Challenger Learning Center Executive Director Alan Hanstein poses proudly before the facility's iconic exterior wall sculpture that depiccts various mathematical equations involved in spaceflight and astrophysics.

Tallahassee’s Challenger Learning Center has a new “mission commander.” Alan Hanstein, who took over as executive director this week.

Although few who know Hanstein are surprised he’s now in charge of the Challenger Learning Center, Hanstein himself still seems a bit amazed by it all.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought Michelle Personette wouldn’t be the executive director here. I had been on the board for almost 20 years and I remember when Michelle was hired as the executive director right after Rick Fisher left and she’s been the executive director I’d known the whole time on the board and she really did an incredible job. And I don’t think we would ever had said, ‘Oh, there’s somebody else.’”

But suddenly, when Personette announced she was leaving not long ago, there was a definite need for somebody else. No longer a Challenger Center board member, Hanstein tossed his name into the hat just to see what might happen.

“They did a nationwide search and got many qualified candidates and I was just one of those candidates. And I will tell you as a former board member I would have looked at any of those candidates and said these would be fantastic people to lead the center. So I’m truly humbled and honored to be the person that was selected and I take it pretty seriously.”

Hanstein has an extensive background in event registration and management. But he insists his greatest love is laser-focused on aeronautics, aerospace and technology. He sees today as the dawn of a new golden age of space exploration.

“The renewed interest in space, largely due to a resurgence started by Space-X with all the work that they did at the Cape, but now with Blue Origin and Virgin and Electron and all of these other companies. I was just down at the Cape (Canaveral) last week and it’s just like it was in the Shuttle days. And I can tell you it wasn’t always like that. At the end of the Shuttle (program,) I can remember going down for a meeting at the Cape and it was pretty doom and gloom. They were talking about moving in old-school manufacturing and the brain drain and what-are-we-going-to-do and the whole economy of the area. And now you can’t get a hotel room and building is everywhere.”

And if Florida is once more the nation’s space capital, shouldn’t the space capital’s Capital City also be part of that excitement? Hanstein believes most of that excitement resides in what the Challenger Learning Center can provide the region’s young people. It’s a conviction he expressed four years ago in a board interview.

“These kids that are here at the center today are going to solve big problems. And it’s not just space. It’s other engineering problems. We’ve got crumbling bridges and infrastructure. And in that 2018 interview, I said we had big medical problems, like diseases and pandemics.”

Although he insists he did NOT see COVID coming. Still, Hanstein sees priority one for the Challenger Learning Center as expanding its geographic reach beyond the Capital Region.

“We get 50,000 students a year through our doors, how can we reach more students? So these past 2 weeks, we’ve been doing outreach in Hamilton County where our education staff has been going all the way over to Hamilton County and under a grant, been teaching science education over there.”

Hanstein sees many facets to that expanded outreach.

“During the pandemic, our educators created an online system called Europa. We were able to deliver education content nationwide and worldwide. So expanding that reach and also reaching more people in our own community that wouldn’t normally get to the Challenger Center. All my friends know already a big part of that is I’ll be asking for money. Fundraising is important to our mission. When we raise funds, that means we can give scholarships to kids to come to camp, to have us in their classrooms, to get resources like telescopes and microscopes and other things that we can leave there for them and train them on. So all of those are in my ‘near-view-window.’”

He plans more aggressive promotion of the Challenger’s awesome asset portfolio, such as the Mission Control facility, planetarium and the region’s biggest IMAX theater. Also on Hanstein’s event horizon is leveraging the Challenger Learning Center’s status as an offshoot of the FAMU/FSU College of Engineering and the family connection to both universities. He says he’s already received an email of welcome - along with a partnership proposal - from one of the schools’ bio-science researchers.

“’I’ve got some research I’m doing; I’m looking for a grant, but also I’ve worked out some ways we can do cell education using Legos and I’d love to come talk to your students in your camp about it.’ I literally just started today, but this is the email that makes me realize I already love my job. Just being in here seeing the kids having fun. And my wife Amy’s probably already getting sick of me! I text her about 20 times a day to say, ‘Did I mention I love my job? I love my job!’”

The job that's now held by the Challenger Learning Center’s new executive director, Alan Hanstein.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories. here.