If you grew up in the late '80s watching Double Dare, Nick Arcade and Guts, you probably regarded a trip to Space Camp as the ultimate grand prize. I, however, can clearly remember watching those shows with no desire to go to Space Camp. That spinny thing that goes in all directions? It was sure to make me sick. If vomiting was a part of going into space, then I was going to have to be content here on Earth.
I never imagined that (26 years later) I would be on my way to Huntsville, Alabama to spend a weekend at Adult Space Academy. The reason? A bachelor party for my oldest friend who happens to be a Space Camp veteran and actual rocket scientist.
Getting the Right Stuff
Before I could act like an astronaut, I had to train like an astronaut. Training primarily involved two key pieces of equipment: the 1/6th gravity chair and the multi-axis trainer (turns out "that spinny thing" has a name). The 1/6th gravity chair simulates gravity on the moon and is basically the most fun ever. You hop around taking huge leaps while floating gently back down to the simulated moon surface below. What could be better?
|Rocking "groom" sunglasses while jumping in the 1/6th gravity chair.
Photo by Hancock Photo
As much fun as low gravity was, my real goal was to conquer the iconic multi-axis-trainer. Even as an adult, I was concerned about becoming violently sick from riding in it. The instructors assured me that despite all the spinning, it doesn't make you dizzy because its movements are random and don't repeat. That sounded like absolute nonsense but I took them at their word and gave it a shot. Turns out, they were right and it's actually far more fun than I had imagined, especially once you lose your fear of falling out and being decapitated.
|Overcoming my childhood fear in the multi-axis trainer.
Photo by Hancock Photo
Doing Math at Mission Control
The first simulation had me at Mission Control. I was assigned to the science station and was primarily responsible for communicating with my friends on the International Space Station (ISS). Before the simulation began, I received a quick briefing on how to do my job. I would have to keep the crew on the ISS on task while also troubleshooting any simulated problems they encountered.
|I am totally confident that I have no idea what I'm doing.|
Once we got underway, it was immediately apparent I had no idea what I was doing. When three indicator warning lights came on at the same time, it took me 15 minutes and three different binders of procedures to solve the problem. When the simulator had the space station descending too close to Earth's atmosphere, I had to do a bunch of math to calculate the proper "burn time" for the crew to fire the thrusters and get themselves back into orbit. Somehow, nobody died on my watch.
Crewing the Space Shuttle
My second mission had me crewing the Space Shuttle and this is where things got a bit dicey. As a Mission Specialist, I'd be doing a space walk to repair an orbiting satellite. Amazingly, we managed to get the shuttle into space, at which point my fellow mission specialist and I headed to the mid-deck to suit up into our space suits.
|In the cockpit of the Space Shuttle.
Photo by Hancock Photo
Decked out in our heavy suites and ice vests to keep our body temperature down, we threw open the airlock to head outside. Forgetting to pressurize the airlock first, this immediately killed everyone aboard the shuttle. Whoops. Taking a mulligan on that one, we continued the mission. I flew around in a harness repairing the satellite but eventually had to abort when we ran out of time. Then our Commander crashed the shuttle into the International Space Station, killing everyone aboard both. A lovely funeral service followed.
|Floating my way through the Space Shuttle cargo bay.|
Having a Seizure Aboard the International Space Station
For my last mission, I was aboard the International Space Station. As a flight engineer, I had to conduct experiments and perform general tasks on the station to keep it operational. I was handed a note by the simulation manager that read "you are having a seizure" and had to comply. I begin flailing around on the floor. My fellow crew had no idea what was happening but managed to stabilize my head and consult with the doctor down at mission control. I was given some simulated medicine (which resembled Skittles) and was left to recover. Crisis averted.
|Pressure mounting aboard the International Space Station.|
Later on, the station began to lose altitude and I needed to talk through the procedure of firing the thrusters with Mission Control to keep us in orbit. While this was happening, our Commander (the same one that crashed the space shuttle earlier) refused to do any exercise and subsequently became simulated-ill. As I tried to punch commands into the station's computer, he yelled for help in the corner. Failing to enter the commands in a timely manner, the space station crashed into South America.
|How cool are we? I bet you'll tell me in the comments.|
A New Appreciation
Before my weekend at Adult Space Academy, I imagined that it would be somewhat silly and childish. I ended up leaving with a tremendous respect for the camp experience. The simulations and activities are not easy and are grounded in real science with a great respect for aviation history. At the adjacent rocket park and museum, I found a new appreciation for the colossal achievement that is space travel. Although I couldn't seem to keep myself alive in the simulators, I was in awe that young kids are able to complete the complex missions successfully. Those kids will become the world's future astronauts, scientists and engineers. When my daughter is old enough, I would be proud to send her to Space Camp.