Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blasting off to Space Camp

I had the incredible honor of going to Space Camp a few years ago, not once, but four times! I was chaperoning a group of scholarship winners from our area, and was able to see the program up close, take pictures of the kids as they participated, and get to know some of the kids who attended. They were all AMAZING, and Space Camp is undeniably one of the greatest experiences ever!

I'm going to share a press release from those Space Camp days....

It’s not your average summer camp….in fact, there are no silly crafts, no camp songs, and the closest thing to a campfire is the glow of a computer console as you blast into space with a shuttle mission simulation. This is serious science and technology, in a format that inspires and teaches young minds.

In the sultry southern humidity of Huntsville, AL, I chaperoned a group of scholarship winners attending Space Camp. When most kids were fanning themselves in the summer heat or splashing in water, these kids were learning about astronauts, space travel, history, crew systems, and much more.

The program is fast paced, with activities ranging from briefings and presentations to hands on simulations and training. The day also includes time for team building and fun activities such as climbing the rock wall at the Mars Mining Simulation. It is a successful mix of information with kinetic activity, real life exhibits of objects from space history, and realistically designed experiences with space training that not only keeps their 9-12 year old minds occupied, but fills them with wonder and excitement about the world around them and the space beyond.

Two Shuttle missions allow the Trainees, as Space Campers are most commonly called, to become a member of NASA and learn firsthand what it is like to blast into space or to manage the proceedings from Mission Control. Trainees are assigned a job and instructed in their particular position. When mission time comes, it’s the real thing….astronauts enter the Shuttle Intrepid through a side hatch, climb onto the flight deck via a ladder, and take their headsets to begin countdown to liftoff. Each Trainee has tasks for the mission, and the switches and led displays are real and responsive. Monitors alternate between real-time shots of the Trainees in the Shuttle and dubbed in footage of actual missions to create a convincing environment for this exercise.

Each team, consisting of 12-14 Trainees, is evaluated during their missions for professionalism and cooperation. During training time, it is not uncommon to find the Trainees mugging for the closed circuit cameras or giggling on the headsets. Once the mission begins, however, play time is over. Trainees are required to behave as their NASA counterparts, and teams are docked for any antics with the equipment. They learn to use microphones without speaking too loud or causing unnecessary noise, and courtesy when a teammate struggles with a task. They are taught to encourage one another, work together, and pay attention to detail. Mishaps can occur, and the Flight Director has the means to talk the Shuttle astronauts through the problem and return them safely to Earth. And systems actually record the input of each Trainee. One team returned to Earth with their Payload Bay Doors wide open….a mistake that could have cost the lives of everyone aboard. It’s an effective lesson in taking your responsibilities seriously.

But then again, it’s more than that. While Space Camp greets each Trainee with a sign above the door that reads, “Through these doors walk America’s future Astronauts, Scientists, and Engineers”, we can assume that not all of these aspiring young minds will enter the Aerospace industry. What will the others take from the curriculum?

Team building and self-confidence, according to chaperone, Jaycie.
“I was constantly amazed at the lessons learned during these missions,” Jaycie reflected. “I would watch them exit the simulators, and listened to their comments. These were lessons that they learned on their own, without the adults guiding them to their conclusions.”

One Trainee who served as the Shuttle Commander, a high profile and glamorous position on the Shuttle crew, lamented that she had hoped to do the EVA (Extra-vehicular activity, or moonwalk) as well. With a shrug, she noted that they each had their moment to shine, and she couldn’t do everything.

Another Shuttle Commander exited the simulation shaking his head. “I couldn’t remember a thing!” he noted. “I’ll never do that again!”

Discovering that we each have our own limitations and comfort zones is all a part of realizing that the team consists of many individuals, all of whom are important and contribute to the mission in their own unique way…a way that they alone may be suited to. Trainees who are uncomfortable speaking and reading aloud shied away from the job of PAO, or Public Affairs Officer. This position requires the Trainee to report to the public what is happening, and explaining technical terms in a way that the general populous would understand.

It was not just about discerning your level of involvement, but asserting your expertise, as well. Trainees found out that you sometimes had to remind your teammates that things were not going as planned. Without adult intervention, the Trainees were overheard to say things such as, “We need to work faster…we’re running out of time. Can I help?” and “You’ve done most of the work. Let me do this part.”

“The children were virtually immersed in the Space Program, learning with their peers in a stimulating environment. Not only do they increase their knowledge, expand their horizons, and consider careers perhaps not even thought of, but they develop a confidence and self-sufficiency from spending the week away from home and in a challenging setting.” added Jaycie.

An additional exercise in which the Trainees traveled to Mars was a favorite amongst the campers. Climbing aboard a small space vehicle, they experienced a ride to Mars, stopping by the ISS (International Space Station). Arriving at the red planet, they enter a lab set up to establish a Mars base. Trainees exited through a pressurized passage to the surface to perform tasks related to this such as soil samples, depth testing, checking for radiation, and finding a suitable spot to build the station. Inside the lab, they work to record and analyze the data of the surface team, as well as to build a model of their proposed Mars base.

During the five-day program, Trainees experience what a real astronaut might during training. A favorite of all is the Space Shot, which simulates a rocket launch, including a 2.5 second liftoff to 140 feet. They then experience 2-3 seconds of weightlessness as they fall back to Earth. Other simulators included the G-Force Accelerator, in which Trainees can feel the effects of 3-G’s pushing on their bodies. Chairs actually slide up the walls as the speed of the simulator increases.

Exclusive to the Space Camp curriculum are the Five Degrees of Freedom Training Chair, Multi Axis Trainer, Manned Maneuvering Unit, and 1/6 Gravity Chair. Trainees enjoyed the Multi Axis Trainer, which mimics the spins that an astronaut might experience upon re-entry into the atmosphere. Bouncing in the 1/6 Gravity Chair gave them the feeling of walking on the Moon, with it’s diminished effect on weight. The Manned Maneuvering Unit and Five Degrees of Freedom Chair actually gave the kids the chance to pretend to be astronauts, working in an environment of reduced mobility in the vacuum of space.

2003 Scholarship Trainees were honored to hear from a real astronaut in a special briefing. Colonel Richard Searfoss flew into space three times, his final mission as a commander of the STS-90 mission. STS-90 was the most complex science and research mission ever flown, in which the astronauts themselves were part of the testing for how the brain and nervous system adjust to weightlessness. He spoke to the children about his experiences not only in space, but as a member of a team. As Shuttle Commander, he had the responsibility and privilege of bringing the team together to accomplish their common goals.

Tux and Musician were greatly blessed to be able to attend with me that year, and got to hear Colonel Searfoss speak. It was a real highlight of our time there. He spoke of his faith, and the things that came into focus for him while in space…the things that were most important to him and why. We later learned that he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which explains why he seemed so comfortable and familiar to us!

It was interesting to note that while both of my boys enjoyed Space Camp immensely, they had very different favorite activities. Musician loved doing an EVA, even though his helmet fan broke and he was a great sweatball by the time he emerged from his space suit. He was uncomfortable in Mission Control, talking on the microphones. Tux, on the other hand, was unimpressed with the EVA. His shining moment was as the Flight Director, a stressful position in Mission Control.

The week ends with a dramatic graduation ceremony, which takes place beneath the only full size Shuttle Stack displayed in the world. It’s imposing figure shades the Trainees, their team leaders, and parents from the blazing Alabama sun as they are awarded their Space Camp wings, and then set free…to fly.

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