It’s out of this world

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

com­mer­cial space hopes, and the whole sit­u­a­tion was han­dled very sen­si­tively for the chil­dren.

Our overnight ac­com­mo­da­tion was in dorms known as Habi­tats or Crew Quarters, and felt a bit like sleep­ing inside Skylab. The cafe­te­ria — oops, I mean Crew Gal­ley — fea­tured fast food from coun­tries in­volved in the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. I tried the Cana­dian ba­con for break­fast and Ger­man bratwurst at lunch, rounded off with afore­men­tioned moon pies for dessert. Oh, and un­lim­ited strong cof­fee — for teach­ers only.

Day two kicked off with the high­light of our trip — a sim­u­lated shut­tle mis­sion. The kids quickly got the hang of the acro­nym-laden lingo, and each child was as­signed a spe­cific job and de­tailed re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. In Nasa mis­sion con­trol, roles such as FDO, EECOM and flight di­rec­tor in­volved launch­ing and mon­i­tor­ing the space shut­tle En­ter­prise, wear­ing head­sets and push­ing im­por­tant-look­ing but­tons. Inside the mock-up of a space shut­tle cock­pit, the com­man­der and pi­lot were in charge of bring­ing the En­ter­prise safely back to Earth. Sta­tion sci­en­tists con­ducted re­search ex­per­i­ments, and the mis­sion spe­cial­ists got to put on space suits and do ex­trave­hic­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, aka space­walks, to re­pair bro­ken satel­lites. (Not sur­pris­ingly, kids look re­ally cute in space suits.)

For my young in­ter­ga­lac­tic ex­plor­ers, this was a high-pres­sure ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially when mal­func­tions or “anom­alies” tested their cri­sis-man­age­ment skills to the limit, in true “Hous­ton, we have a prob­lem” style. But this was a great team-build­ing, lead­er­ship and decision-mak­ing ex­er­cise, which they thor­oughly en­joyed.

Our three days at camp in­cluded learn­ing lots of space his­tory too. We watched Imax movies and com­pleted ed­u­ca­tional as­sign­ments inside the mu­seum. My stu­dents were fas­ci­nated by the ex­hi­bi­tion about an­i­mals in space, fea­tur­ing the two fa­mous Amer­i­can mon­key­nauts, Able and Baker.

Fol­low­ing their his­toric flight in 1959, the squir­rel mon­key Baker lived out her days at the Mar­shall base, and is buried on site. Chad en­ter­tained us with sto­ries of Baker’s ghost, which al­legedly roams Space Camp, just as we were head­ing back to our dorms for a good night’s sleep.

Our knowl­edge of all things space was tested on the fi­nal day with a trivia Jeop­ardystyle game. The quiz cat­e­gories in­cluded early space, rock­ets and acronyms. Thanks to ex­pert coach­ing from Chad and no help from me, our team won. And yes, we were over the moon. To cel­e­brate our vic­tory, we vis­ited the gift shop; who doesn’t love to buy freeze-dried space ice cream at astro­nom­i­cal prices?

Our trip cul­mi­nated in a spe­cial grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony for us new space cadets. We were treated to an in­spi­ra­tional speech by Col Marks, the gar­ri­son com­man­der of Red­stone Arse­nal. We were fol­low­ing in gi­ant foot­steps, he told us: sev­eral for­mer grad­u­ates of Space Camp have grown up to be­come Nasa as­tro­nauts. Each team took to the stage, to be pre­sented with diplo­mas for com­plet­ing the in­tense sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­i­cal chal­lenges.

There were also awards for out­stand­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion, and I’m thrilled to an­nounce that Team Ride won the award for cu­rios­ity, which prob­a­bly means that we just asked more ques­tions than any­one else.

As school trips go, this has to be the high­light of my 26-year teach­ing ca­reer on both sides of the At­lantic. For as­pir­ing as­tro­nauts, chil­dren (or teach­ers) who want to reach for the stars, or any child who loves as­tron­omy, the Space Camp ex­pe­ri­ence is out of this world. Sorry; just couldn’t re­sist that one…

The three-day Pathfinder pro­gramme is among more than a dozen ver­sions of Space Camp of­fered at Huntsville. There are dif­fer­ent op­tions for up­per pri­mary and high school pupils, as well as fam­ily and adult groups, last­ing up to a week. Other camps in­clude Meet an Astro­naut and pro­grammes for vis­ually im­paired chil­dren. A new ex­hibit, 101 In­ven­tions that Changed the World, opened this week. Costs from $239 (£153) per child, plus trans­port (space­

Mary McCar­ney is an English teacher at At­lanta In­ter­na­tional School, USA.

Space cadets: bud­ding as­tro­nauts feel the force

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