It’s out of this world
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 (spacecamp.com).
Mary McCarney is an English teacher at Atlanta International School, USA.
Space cadets: budding astronauts feel the force