The thought of Space Camp conjures up images of simulated missions on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, bulky NASA flight suits, and trying to concentrate while strapped in the multi-axis astronaut training chair, which spins you in all directions at once. It had always been a childhood dream of mine to go to Space Camp, and I finally got to go as an adult. I had been giving a presentation at the Smithsonian Affiliations conference in Washington DC, and afterwards, I met the CEO of the US Space & Rocket Center, who invited me to lead a workshop for their staff about using virtual world technology to engage young people in science. So I decided I just HAD to stay on and go to Space Camp too. That first morning, I saw a group of about 50 adults who were as excited to be there as any kid could ever be. After meeting a real astronaut, Robert “Hoot” Gibson, and dividing into four crews named after the Shuttles, my Challenger crew was assigned to various jobs for our alpha mission. The first thing you learn is how much NASA loves acronyms: At Mission Control, there is CapCom, CATO (Communication and Tracking Officer), EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity), and so on.
Having been assigned to an EVA, I was helped into a space suit (it’s a 2 person job), huge boots, a headset to communicate with Mission Control, and a full helmet with face guard. And the best part (and another example of NASA’s genius) – a vest outfitted with pockets all over it filled with ice packs. So despite the bulkiness, you stay cool under all the layers (not to mention the pressure of the mission). I was strapped into a contraption on the end of a robotic arm extending out from the open cargo bay doors of a Space Shuttle (in a place that looks strikingly similar to a real astronaut training facility at Johnson Space Center). Listening to my Mission Control crew through my headset, I followed instructions necessary to make repairs to a satellite. Something unexpected happens to you when you’re put in a space suit on the end of a robotic arm, or sitting at Mission Control in front of a monitor with tons of parameters on it giving instructions to Shuttle commanders… you automatically employ NASA-speak. Sentences like “Be advised that all systems are nominal” and “CATO, this is EVA, I have reached Instrument Panel B and disabled switch R1” start to feel totally natural.
Later on during camp, our crew successfully (for the most part) launched our homemade rockets, and of course had the chance to see if we could handle the multi-axis chair. But learning to pilot the flight simulators was another challenge. One slight move of the joystick, and you were in a tailspin. (A little hint: make sure the landing gear is down before you land). Something else happens at Space Camp – you develop a new appreciation for the sometimes super-human skill, dedication, concentration, knowledge, and practice it take to be an astronaut, pilot, mission specialist, or at Mission Control in charge of keeping everything on track. We did it all for fun, but these people do it when it counts the most and when the stakes could not possibly be any higher. It’s one of the great joys (and ironies) of Space Camp, that you are learning about pushing the boundaries of space travel, while at the same time going back in time, sleeping in bunk beds and eating cafeteria style – not to mention making great new friends. But this is where our next generation of heroes will be inspired to do the prep and take that leap. As a kid, I was always fascinated by the sky and what was out there, outside the blanket of the Earth’s atmosphere. Looking up into the sky, I wondered what was out there, and wanted to become an astronaut to find out – and that never changed as I became an adult. But it’s never too late to fulfill a childhood dream. I still do plan to get to space someday though… - Lindsay B.