Space cadets

Ev­ery year, a group of Hong Kong and Ma­cao young­sters get a close look at what it’s like to be in outer space. Wang Yuke re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - HONG KONG -

Ap­plause and ex­cla­ma­tions of con­grat­u­la­tion echoed through­out the wel­com­ing cer­e­mony mark­ing the tri­umphant re­turn of eight of Hong Kong’s ju­nior “as­tro­nauts” from a sim­u­lated mis­sion to outer space.

Their nine-day space ex­plo­ration took them to the US Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama and to the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Florida. They ex­pe­ri­enced weight­less­ness and con­di­tions like those of the lunar sur­face, ac­com­plished vir­tual mis­sions out­side an or­bit­ing space shut­tle and ex­pe­ri­enced the dis­ori­en­ta­tion of a sim­u­lated reen­try into earth’s at­mos­phere from the depths of space.

The kids are Hong Kong pri­mary pupils aged from 9 to 11, from dif­fer­ent eco­nomic cir­cum­stances and dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests. What they all shared was the dream of trav­el­ing into space. They were part of the MassMu­tual Jr Space Camp pro­gram, op­er­a­tional since 1999 and train­ing kids who are in­ter­ested in space ex­plo­ration from Hong Kong and Ma­cao.

Billy Gao Hung-wah, a fifth grader, loved the Moon­walk sim­u­la­tion pro­gram that al­lowed him to ex­pe­ri­ence 1/6 grav­ity. “Float­ing (in the weight­less en­vi­ron­ment), I liked the giddy sen­sa­tion,” he said en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. The tricks to nav­i­gate from A to B in space are the “bunny jump” and the “crab side­walk”, he preached. One bunny hop would project him about three me­ters above the ground, like su­per­man, as he de­scribed him­self.

An­other fifth grader, Kar­son Chan Shing- zik, de­scribed the sim­u­lated re-en­try to earth’s at­mos­phere on the multi-axis trainer as his tough­est test. “It’s more of a chal­lenge psy­cho­log­i­cally than phys­i­cally. I was afraid of heights,” said Chan. There he was, 90 feet above the floor, at­tached to a ma­chine that would fall pre­cip­i­tately while spin­ning him around 360 de­grees. As the ma­chine swirled and twisted un­pre­dictably, Chan said, his body spun so fast that he was un­able to fo­cus his eyes, and then came dizzi­ness, and then ver­tigo. “It’s much like rid­ing a roller coaster — some­thing I never dared to try,” he said.

It was the sen­sa­tion of feel­ing be­ing sus­pended in mid-air at great height, fol­lowed by high ac­cel­er­a­tion on a tan­gen­tial course that proved his most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge. His acro­pho­bia could have ren­dered him in­el­i­gi­ble for the pro­gram, so he re­sisted the fear. Dur­ing this per­sonal “or­deal”, he kept his fear un­der con­trol by do­ing math cal­cu­la­tions dur­ing the most un­pleas­ant part of the ride.

“I used to stand on a high level, head down, look­ing down for as long as I could and forc­ing my eyes open.” It was this per­sonal achieve­ment that en­abled Chan to pass the rig­or­ous se­lec­tion test be­fore he was given a green card to the camp, to­gether with the other seven who at­tended.

Each par­tic­i­pant at the camp was given a spe­cific mis­sion as­sign­ment. Gao was the pi­lot. He de­cided when to launch. Seated be­side the com­man­der, he mon­i­tored the in­te­rior and ex­te­rior tem­per­a­tures in real time. Nei­ther an overly fast speed nor a high tem­per­a­ture is ap­pro­pri­ate for launch. To en­sure the best tim­ing for launch, he had to keep a close eye on the data dis­played on the heads up dis­play, ready to take prompt ac­tion at the first sign of any mal­func­tion, Gao re­counted, hav­ing to cope with a sud­den in­crease in air pres­sure and an un­ex­pected break­down of the space shut­tle’s land­ing gear. “It re­quires ex­tremely fast re­sponse to emer­gen­cies and has no room for er­rors,” he summed up.

Chan’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, as a mis­sion spe­cial­ist, was to re­pair and up­grade equip­ment in­side the space station. While it’s rou­tine in daily life, tin­ker­ing with ma­chine parts in the weight­less en­vi­ron­ment is a dif­fer­ent story, he said. “Wear­ing the bulky space­suit re­stricted my move­ments. I had to crawl and float all the way from the space shut­tle to the space station be­fore clam­ber­ing up a chair, un­der the weight­less con­di­tions to per­form the assembly,” he has­tened to add, “It’s hard, but I rel­ished the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Chan re­counted that it took him a long time ad­just­ing a loose screw and strik­ing a nail with a ham­mer. “I sweated a lot, so some­times the screw slipped out of my wet gloves and drifted away. Then I needed my coach to catch it and toss it back to me,” Chan laughed, ac­knowl­edg­ing that a per­son without pa­tience, re­source­ful­ness and team spirit could not pass the test.

Gao’s fas­ci­na­tion with the uni­verse started when he was around 4. His mother worked for an air­line. Chen fell in love with space science after be­ing given a model of the so­lar sys­tem. Pos­sessed of a good mem­ory and a habit of tak­ing notes, he ac­quired a fair amount of cos­mo­log­i­cal knowl­edge.

Both kids said they believe in ex­tra ter­res­trial life forms. “They may have an ou­tra­geous ap­pear­ance: three eyes, a long nose and oc­to­pus-like feet, but they are adorable. They prob­a­bly live on car­bon monox­ide. I want to make friends with them,” de­scribed Chan.

Gao chimed in, “They are odd­look­ing crea­tures with sev­eral noses and ears and without skin. They move around like a clumsy ro­bot and they are as tiny as ants.”

Op­por­tu­ni­ties and suc­cess fa­vor those who are well pre­pared. The two ju­nior “as­tro­nauts” have started reg­u­lar phys­i­cal train­ing in the hope that some­day they will get an op­por­tu­nity to go back to NASA for ad­di­tional train­ing.

“I’m a lit­tle fat,” Gao said, flushed, “so I must do fre­quent ex­er­cises to shed some weight.” He plays table ten­nis, rugby and bas­ket­ball to make him taller, im­prove his leg mus­cles, phys­i­cal dex­ter­ity, sharpen mind and eye­sight, and re­duce the chance of slack mus­cles which can af­flict as­tro­nauts re­turn­ing to Earth.

Chan has his own ex­er­cise regime to “keep in shape”. He takes fenc­ing to im­prove his en­durance and keep his mind alert. His fa­ther serves as com­pan­ion, a trainer and a cheerleader. Fa­ther and son have jogged to­gether ev­ery day for sev­eral years. Chan’s stamina has im­proved. In the be­gin­ning he could run only a kilo­me­ter. Now they’ve ex­tended their runs to five kilo­me­ters.

His fa­ther was also aware of hav­ing his son psy­cho­log­i­cally primed and he had spent hol­i­days with son in prim­i­tive and un­der­priv­i­leged vil­lages on the Chi­nese main­land in the hope of build­ing re­silience and adap­tive­ness in his son.

The par­ents know that be­ing an as­tro­naut is dan­ger­ous.

“There’s no job that’s a hun­dred per­cent safe,” said Chan’s fa­ther. “Be­sides, boys should be ad­ven­tur­ous and think big. His mother’s still a lit­tle wor­ried, but I’ll con­vince her any­way.”

Gao’s mother made it clear that she will al­ways back her son, no mat­ter what ca­reer he chooses. “The only thing we can do as par­ents is to as­sist our chil­dren to live ful­filled lives without any re­gret.”

The path to be­com­ing an as­tro­naut en­tails per­se­ver­ance, pa­tience and de­ter­mi­na­tion, which is a real­ity the two promis­ing as­tro­nauts have taken on board. So, they have plan B. Gao plans to study as­tron­omy be­fore he sets foot in space, while Chan is fas­ci­nated with par­tic­u­lar as­pect of as­tron­omy, black holes, along with the­o­ret­i­cal white holes and worm holes. “They are so com­plex that they have baf­fled us for cen­turies,” said Chan.

It re­quires ex­tremely fast re­sponse to emer­gen­cies and has no room for er­rors.”

Con­tact the writer at jenny@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

CHINA PRO­VIDED PHO­TOS

shoul­ders with NASA as­tro­naut The eight ju­nior as­tro­nauts rubbed med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments in space. Richard Sear­foss who car­ried out to them­closer in the camp that join­ing are­con­vinced as­tro­nauts The young their as­tro­nautDAILY

Billy Gao Hung-wah, a Pri­mary-Five stu­dent in Hong Kong, who took the role of pi­lot dur­ing the sim­u­lated space camp pro­gram.

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