On July 20, 1969, all the world sat mesmerized as grainy black and white television images revealed “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon.
I’m not a space geek. But with the 50th anniversary of that incredible day approaching, the time seemed right to embark on my own space adventure: a weekend-long visit to the Adult Space Academy at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Truth be told, it was my inner adrenaline junkie that was most excited about the Space Academy, the grown-up version of Huntsville’s youth oriented Space Camp. I looked forward to a new kind of adventure, romping around in an anti-gravity chamber, spinning in a gyroscope, spacewalking and wearing a puffy space suit.
The surprise? I didn’t know how hard Space Academy was going to be. Or how rich the camaraderie with my fellow astronauts.
After the logistics – picking up my access pass, my bedding and my royal blue flight suit – I met the 15 others who would comprise Team Challenger.
Josh Stager was from Washington. Space Camp had been a childhood dream that he only recently realized was available to adults.
Birmingham resident Chris Jones had also dreamed of Space Camp all his life. “My parents gave me the option when I was in 7th grade to go to Space Camp or Washington, DC,” Chris told me. “I stupidly picked Washington. I’ve regretted that decision ever since, but this weekend my wonderful wife made it right.”
Robert Hanson has lived all his life within sight of the Saturn V rocket that towers like the Washington Monument over the city of Huntsville. “When I was a kid every fifth grade class in the Huntsville City Schools attended Space Camp for free,” Robert recalled. “The year I was in fifth grade the free program was cancelled.” Now in his early 20s, Robert finally attended Space Academy with his 18-year-old sister Catherine who skipped her senior prom to spend time with her brother.
Science geeks and adventure gluttons, young and old, from New Jersey and Seattle and a dozen points in between, we were a diverse group with just one thing in common: we wanted to go to space.
The "Grown-Up" Version of Space Camp in One Weekend
Mission Control, Copy That
Simulated space missions made up the core of our training at Space Academy. On each of three training sessions half of our team either climbed aboard the Space Shuttle Enterprise or boarded the International Space Station to conduct science experiments.
A simulated Mission Center Complex awaited the earthbound half of our team. Eight monitors lit up like Christmas trees, each labeled with our individual roles: PAYCOM (Payload Command Manager) and EVA (Extravehicular Activity, or spacewalking); EECOM (Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Systems Engineer) and GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Control Systems Engineer). Who knew NASA was so fond of acronyms?
A binder laid-out the protocol for what I should do when the Space Shuttle developed problems, apparently known in the business as “anomalies.”
“This is Mission Control to Mission Specialist 1,” I radioed into space. “Position umbilical line in lower right corner of Access Panel A. For RCS engine deactivation locate Instrument Bay B on PAM control panel. Switch MODE on. Check A, S, D illumination...”
These were our conversations, strings of words and letters that meant little to me. And yet they seemed vitally important. Some Space Academy attendees had been waiting all their lives to repair a satellite by means of a spacewalk, even if it was all a grand simulation. I didn’t want to be the one to spoil the mission.
The next day our space duties were switched up. Those who piloted the Enterprise yesterday worked Mission Control today. Those who called instructions to the payload specialist yesterday conducted space experiments today.
And me? I went on a spacewalk.
It was tough not to giggle as I tugged on the bulky space suit and oversized helmet. Space Academy trainers steadied me while I stepped into my clunky white boots.
Through the hatch I climbed, from the shuttle’s crew cabin into the cargo bay where I was tethered and harnessed. I was off to repair a damaged satellite.
My space suit left me feeling sweaty and clumsy. I got a sense of how tough real astronauts have it. And while the shuttle’s pulleys and levers could never replicate zero gravity, and pressing buttons on a fake key pad would never duplicate a genuine spacewalk, I got an intense thrill out of the mission just the same.
Of Space Spirals and Anti-Gravity
If our space missions formed the meat of our cosmic weekend, the physical simulators were the dessert.
My favorite was the multi-axis trainer (MAT), a gyroscope into which participants strapped their bodies to be spun up and over, end over end. The MAT aims to replicate an uncontrolled capsule cartwheeling through space. Real astronauts learn troubleshooting skills while they tumble, so in keeping with that tradition our trainer Corey called out problems for us to solve: “What city are you in?” “What is 2 + 2?” “What is your name?” Presumably real astronauts get harder problems.
Another physical test: the antigravity chair. Strapped into a seat designed to mimic the moon’s gravitational pull (about one sixth of the Earth’s), academy attendees walk forward, shuffle side-to-side and hop, all while being hoisted upward. I found it impossible to ponder the seriousness of all this science. It was simply too much fun.
A Long Day's Work
In between training, missions and simulations our 15-hour days were loaded with team-building exercises, space history lessons and a space themed movie. We also built and launched small rockets, an activity we all found wildly exciting even though most of our rockets crashed. We even took part in a space-themed Quiz Bowl.
The final event was graduation. Team Challenger gathered on the stage. Corey handed each of us certificates of completion. We were Space Academy graduates. I surprised myself by getting a little choked up.
Afterward, I made my way to the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, a museum jam-packed with memorabilia: a rare Saturn V rocket; a chunk of Skylab; original Mercury and Gemini trainers; an old Airstream trailer once used as quarantine housing for post-mission astronauts.
But even after scouring the museum, I lingered at the Rocket Center. Josh, my teammate from Washington, wrote me later. “I had high expectations going into Huntsville and the Space Academy totally lived up to them. I didn’t want the weekend to end.”
Chris, my teammate from Birmingham, wrote to say, “I wish the adult camp were a week long.” And Robert, my teammate from Huntsville, signed his email to me, “Team Challenger for life.”
“Once you have tasted flight,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
There are 16 Team Challenger members who think Leonardo was right. Even if our space journey was pretend.