If you were a child of the ’80s and early ’90s, chances are you harbored a not-so-secret wish to visit Huntsville, AL. Oh, not because you were some kind of junior foodie out to sample their delicious BBQ, or a history nut looking to revisit the scandalous romance of Henry and Emiline.
No, you wanted to go Space Camp. And just a couple of weeks ago, I – along with a handful of other journalists – got to give my inner child the treat of a lifetime with a brief jaunt to camp and a museum. And after a day of suiting up, getting down, and trying to keep my crew alive in a mock mission, I learned a few life lessons that might just have you survive your own trip to Space Camp.
8. Space Camp: Not Just for Kids Anymore
First, you should know that your childhood Space Camp dreams don’t have to stay dead and buried along with “Help Duke defeat Cobra Commander” and “Ask the Go-Bots precisely what their deal is.”
Provided you can pony up the cash, Space Camp is open to kids and adults of all ages (one of our counselors told us the oldest visitor was in his ’80s). Apparently, it’s a favorite place for corporate retreats, when your boss absolutely, positively has to measure your leadership potential by the way you manage a fake extra orbital mission.
But besides proving that Johnson doesn’t have it because he panicked during the 1/16th gravity walk, Space Camp also offers a variety of programs for kids ages 9 to high school years. One of the standouts, SCI-VIS, offers the wonder of space exploration for visually impaired kids.
Ha, didn’t think I was going to start with the serious and sincere stuff, did you? Don’t worry; it gets crazy quickly.
7. You Might Never Stop Wearing Your Flight Suit
Look, I’m not going to sit here in my flight suit and pretend like I’m better than the rest of you out there. Quite the contrary. I’m just like any other person who gets to wear a grown-up onesie in the comfort of their own home, emblazoned with all sorts of NASA badges.
Now, did I go through airport security at Huntsville bellowing “Out of my way, Spaceman Webb must make his Dallas connection?” Well, that’s really not for me (or the Huntsville PD) to say pending the final investigation.
6. Space Has Weird Ways of Trying to Kill You
Last year, astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned. Which wouldn’t be so weird except he was in a space suit at the time, orbiting the planet. You can follow along with the video up above, but the counselors at Space Camp, when you can corner them for a minute, are happy to elaborate on some of the many, many ways you can eat it among the stars.
If it’s not trying to freeze you or suffocate you, now the final frontier is trying to drown you?
In truth, the counselors try to keep things light and were likely playing to our older (and increasingly loud/goofy/reliving-their-childhood group of journalists, but it’s a reminder that they’re a terrific resource for all kinds of history and factoids about space exploration and the many, many strange ways that it can go wrong (NASA calls these situations “anomalies”).
On the ground, Space Camp is pretty safe and smooth sailing (although it can be tense – more on that later). Still, what is the puking-while-out-in-public situation like?
5. You’re Probably Not Going to Puke as Often as You’d Expect
I’m glad you asked, dear reader. Now you would think being strapped to a gyroscope and spun around for three minutes to simulate the disorientation of zero gee would lead to a gross trail of astronaut ice cream sprayed this way and that, but among the many not-gross revelations of Space Camp is that getting in the Chair of Woe (my name for it), is a relatively sedate affair.
Per our counselor, it’s all a matter of keeping your head forward and your eyes open. With your stomach acting as your center of gravity, you won’t lose your lunch in front of your friends, colleagues, and a group of 7th graders.
The same goes for the 1/16th gravity chair (simulating the pull of gravity on the moon), and the scuba experience (this one’s for older campers and it’s great): you’re allowed to get up to some exciting stuff without the threat of staining your flight suit.
4. Space Talk: You Will Learn (Some of) It!
But some of you are wondering how authentic Space Camp is. And to you, I say, I have no idea since I’ve never been an astronaut. Get off my back.
For the rest of you, be prepared for a fairly immersive experience, complete with replica shuttles, one of those crazy arms that Sandy Bullock was trapped to in Gravity (it’s called a Canada Arm), and the full blinking-lights and panic experience of being in Mission Control.
Now, I don’t know the difference between FIDO or CAPCOM – one of the many acronyms I learned while there – but for a minute, you and your fellow Space Camp visitors will be experts in NASA lingo as you attempt to guide your shuttle into orbit and then back, safely to Earth.
Obviously, our crash course in NASA jargon is a total 180 from the genuine article – we later learned from a real-life astronaut that it’s only through sheer repetition that he and the other engineers who fling themselves off of this beautiful blue marble don’t completely lose their stuff when their space suits try to drown them or all of the lights on the console flash a very panicked, very urgent red.
And oh, yeah, during our mock mission, the warning screens flashed red. So red.
3. It’s More Fun if Your Counselors Give You the Business
While it’s unlikely that your adventure in Huntsville will ever end with you and a ragtag crew of misfits orbiting the Earth in a very real mission, Space Camp is really at its most fun when the pressure is on.
My fellow campers and I learned this during the final leg of our Space Camp journey: launching a shuttle and then guiding its crew safely back to Earth.
Some of us, based on weight requirements and interest in the roles got to go aboard the shuttle, while the rest of us hung out in Mission Control, ever-vigilant for someone to say “Huntsville, we have problem.”
Now, I can imagine for the younger campers, this is a chance to teach them a little about following processes (each station for the Mission Control staff has a handy booklet complete with process flowcharts in case of catastrophic stuff happening to your crew), but our counselors were aware that we, as grown-ass adults, required the full business.
After (somehow) getting the shuttle out into space – there may have been alcohol-related complications for many of the parties involved – one of the systems was flashing red. Something with electrical, I think. Within seconds, ALL of the systems were flashing red, and I swear I didn’t touch anything, I promise, oh god.
I didn’t panic, though. Because…
2. Alcohol and Mission Control Do Mix
First, a MAJOR disclaimer in this brief-ish interlude: your Space Camp experience will probably not include liquor or other fine spirits. But the fine people at NatGeo, who footed the bill for our trip, realized that after almost 10 hours of activity, it might be time for a liquid respite with dinner. If you can swing it, I’d suggest making this happen.
Now, at most, our flight crew and Mission Control were a little tipsy, but somehow that seemed to make all of the difference. I will note that our crew made it back to Earth – with the exception of a pair of technicians who refused to go back inside, even as the shuttle was making its descent back to Earth (there was some discussion about not going in unless bacon was supplied immediately, if I recall).
1. You Will Never Be as Cool as An Astronaut
How often do you get to talk to someone who’s left the planet (and lived to tell the tale)? The true highlight of my trip to space camp was the chance to have dinner with astronaut Colonel Ronald Garan, who was part of the crew on the International Space Station back in 2008, and later in 2011.
One thing that strikes you almost immediately is how cool, calm, and collected Garan is; a trait developed, I can only assume, from years of walking away from explosions in slow motion while “Danger Zone” blares from some unknown audio source. This description isn’t too hyperbolic, by the way: besides staring down at our planet from the blackness of space, Garan was also a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and has a long list of medals for valor and general badassery.
Now, it’d be one thing if Garan was full of space-conquering swagger, but the coolest thing about this real-life Hal Jordan is how humble he is about the experience as well and curiously philosophical being up yonder has made him. He told us about being up in space in the midst of the Arab Spring in 2011, and how seeing the Middle East as a series of twinkling lights down below really put the conflict into perspective (I’m paraphrasing, but I promise, it was beautiful).
And that’s maybe the true value of the Space Camp experience: it reminds us that we’re here for something more, that ours can be an aspirational experience on this rapidly-spinning blue globe. When it comes right down to it, we’re all on the same ride and there’s nothing more thrilling, frightening, or wonderful than the chance to reach out toward the stars and see what mysteries they hold.
Previously by Charles Webb