By Jane Engle
October 6, 2013
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — I was inept at moonwalking. My rocket was a dud. And I crashed the space shuttle.
Fortunately, I was just an astronaut wannabe and not the real deal. But it's as close as this middle-aged space geek is going to get. That geekiness, inspired by IMAX documentaries on space and news coverage of NASA's final shuttle launch in 2011, was what brought me to Adult Space Academy. The trip was a gift from my wife.
The three-day program is among more than a dozen versions of Space Camp, which the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville created more than 30 years ago to give visitors a taste of what it's like to train as an astronaut. Lasting up to a week, Space Camps are variously tailored to children, adults, families, corporate team-building and other groups.
Last year, the programs enrolled more than 19,000 people, including more than 400 in Adult Space Academy, plus about 1,000 in day camps. Some of the graduates have gone on to become astronauts.
If you're over the moon about space travel, enjoy team challenges with strangers and don't mind dorm life, Space Camp will send you into orbit. But if that's not your scene, your weekend escape may fizzle on the launch pad. So be prepared, space cadets.
The mock training takes place at the sprawling state-run space center, which also serves as an aerospace museum and visitors information center for NASA's nearby Marshall Space Flight Center. It was at Marshall that the legendary Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists developed the Saturn V rocket that propelled the first men to the moon in 1969.
During my program last year, more than 40 participants built and launched model rockets, whirled around in a G-force simulator, got turned topsy-turvy, piloted mock fighter jets and attempted to walk in simulated low gravity.
We also spent hours inside mock-ups of a space shuttle cockpit, NASA mission control and the International Space Station, the settings for simulated shuttle missions that formed the core of our training. Working in teams, we took turns crewing the space shuttle orbiter, monitoring the mission, conducting research experiments and doing extravehicular activities, a.k.a. spacewalks, to make repairs.
The pace was warp speed, and the tasks were surprisingly tough.
"I hear they work you very hard," said the desk clerk at the Huntsville Marriott, where my friend Laurie and I stayed the night before starting Adult Space Academy.
On the first day, our nonstop schedule stretched beyond dinner. The next morning, we mustered for breakfast at 7:30 and finished our activities after 8 p.m. Meal breaks were as short as 30 minutes — just as well, because the cafeteria's food was forgettable. (The food service has since been upgraded, according to Tim Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.)
We slept in the sleek, four-story Habitat building, which was cleverly tricked out to evoke life in space. Our communal bathroom, for example, was labeled "Female Waste Management." The snug dormitory rooms, on the other hand, were charmless. Ours was furnished with several bunk beds, lockers and little else. Towels were not provided.
Get the picture? It's Space Camp, not Space Hilton. I thought the Habitat was fun. But Laurie and my two other roommates, disenchanted with the accommodations, decamped to the comforts of the on-site Huntsville Marriott the first night, leaving me alone in the room. "A lot of adults don't like the beds," our trainer Kisha said.
The next day, a disappointed Laurie dropped out of training. She had signed up with me more or less on a lark. Among other criticisms, she gave low marks to her shuttle mission experience. "I realized Space Camp is for people who dream of being an astronaut and traveling into space," she said. And that's not her.
Most of the starry-eyed cadets seemed to be having a blast. When I asked one of them, Sherrie, to describe her spacewalk, for which she donned a bulky spacesuit and helmet, she said: "It was hot and sweaty and difficult, and I loved it."
As with many participants, Sherrie was a serious space junkie. "I've always wanted to go into space since I was a little kid," she said. "It's on my bucket list." Another trainee, Joe, who said he had followed the U.S. space program since age 10, was enjoying a repeat trip to Space Camp, which gets many returnees, I'm told.
Our program's first day got off to a stratospheric start with an engaging speech by retired Navy Capt. Robert "Hoot" Gibson, still trim at age 65, who flew five shuttle missions from 1984 to 1995. He described Earth as only astronauts can. Especially entrancing, he said, were the aurora borealis, or northern lights, which from space appeared as curtains of light dancing across the planet.
After Gibson's speech, my team of 12 embarked on a simulated space mission. Kisha first briefed us on our jobs and the acronym-laden NASA lingo, which included MET, or mission elapsed time. Assigned to mission control as the propulsions officer, I monitored pressurization of the fuel systems and cabin air.
MET was a merciless taskmaster. As the clock counted down the seconds to lift-off, we scrambled to complete our pre-launch tasks on schedule. Mostly, we fell short. After the shuttle blasted off, we wrestled with equipment malfunctions, known as "anomalies," that Kisha thrust upon us. Then our cabin crew failed to deploy the landing gear, plunking the orbiter down on its belly. Oops.
After a couple more missions that weekend, we got better at our jobs. As commander and pilot, respectively, Joe and I flubbed a few shuttle approaches before finally proving we had the right stuff by guiding the orbiter to a perfect landing. We high-fived, and our teammates cheered. I was ecstatic.
The physical training, modeled after programs that prepared astronauts for space travel, was also a highlight. My favorite equipment was the 1/6 chair, rigged to mimic the moon's gravitational pull, about one-sixth of the Earth's. Buckled in the chair, with my feet on the ground, I tried to step forward, only to bounce high in the air. I was terrible at moonwalking, but it was so much fun that I couldn't stop laughing.
I also got a kick out of the so-called multi-axis trainer, patterned on one built for Project Mercury astronauts to simulate tumbling maneuvers in space. Looking like a giant three-ringed gyroscope, it rotated the strapped-in rider every which way.
I ditched one activity, the G-force simulator, fearing I'd feel claustrophobic. The room-sized centrifuge spins around riders tucked into tiny pods. It magnifies gravity to three times the planet's pull — about what shuttle crews experience during launch. My intrepid teammates who took rides emerged grinning and marveling at the weirdly heavy sensations.
The packed weekend, which also included a space-trivia contest, IMAX movie, graduation ceremony and more, was not without misfires.
On the first day, Kisha appeared to be on autopilot; her patter lacked pizazz. She later confided that she was exhausted from back-to-back sessions. She soon bounced back, however. Model rocket construction was rocky. Kisha seemed unfamiliar with the kits, and we struggled to finish. But all was forgiven the next morning, when we launched our little creations, whooping with joy. I felt like a kid, even though my rocket was the only one that failed to lift off.
We didn't get much time to tour the space museum, which is a must-see. So I headed there after our Sunday morning graduation. Inside you'll find a rare Saturn V rocket; original Mercury and Gemini capsule trainers; a chunk of Skylab, the first U.S. space station; and much more. Outside, at the Rocket Park, more than 20 missiles and rockets are displayed. Also on-site is the 75-ton Pathfinder orbiter, built by NASA in 1977 as a test simulator.
In a sad coincidence, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died on our second day at Adult Space Academy. In his honor, some of the trainees toasted him with Fuzzy Astronaut cocktails. Lacking the traditional Tang powdered drink to mix into the peach schnapps and vodka, they improvised with Pixie Stix and food coloring.
The resulting concoctions weren't real Fuzzy Astronauts, purists might say. And we weren't real astronauts in training. But we had a hoot pretending we were, and that was real enough for me.
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