In 1986, the movie "Space Camp" flared the imaginations of kids everywhere. The film featured a bunch of mismatched, teenage geniuses who accidentally ended up in space. When it turned out that space camp wasn't just a product of Hollywood and actually existed, the fascination only got bigger. About 750 students attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., in 1982, the year the movie opened; the summer after it hit theaters, 12,000 signed up.
Marketing brilliance and fantasy plotlines aside, the real Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is a worthy endeavor. True, there's no chance whatsoever of students ending up accidentally launched into space. Even with an emotional AI robot pushing buttons in the control room, Max never would have been on a real space shuttle in the first place. NASA's not in the practice of letting teenagers mess around on the shuttle. It's actually not even the organization behind Space Camp.
So what's the big draw if there's no long-shot surprise space flight involved? In short: simulators. Simulators so realistic, they make Alabama feel like real, live outer space.
In this article, we'll see what Space Camp is all about. It's no one-size-fits-all setup. There are different programs, different specialties within programs and different reasons to go. First, though, let's start with the question that's on most of our minds: Can a 40-year-old go to camp?
The Basics of Space Camp
Space Camp isn't just for kids. Forty-year-olds are welcome, too. So are nine-year-olds, 80-year-olds and entire families looking for an interesting summer vacation. Space Camp is an equal-opportunity enroller: Students come to Huntsville, Ala., from all over the United States as well as 40 other countries. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center also runs Space Camps in Turkey and Canada. Additional Space Camps are planned for South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. There are Space Camps for the hearing and visually impaired, for corporate groups, for educators looking to enhance their classroom science curriculum and for parents looking to spend some quality time with their kids.
One of the reasons why everyone can go to Space Camp is that it's not exactly the astronaut-training program many of us see it as. It's really an educational camp focused on flight, engineering, physics, astronomy and robotics. It's about inspiring people, especially kids, to pursue academic success in math and science. That's why NASA big shot Dr. Wernher von Braun got the ball rolling in the first place. Von Braun, the rocket scientist who headed up Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville from the Mercury through the Apollo missions, wanted kids to get in on the action. He pitched the idea for a camp in the 1970s, and in 1982, Space Camp opened in Huntsville as part of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Since then, 500,000 people have graduated. Teens can actually get college credit for graduating from Advanced Space Academy, the Space Camp for 15 through 18-year-olds.
One common misconception is that Space Camp is a NASA program. Space Camp is neither run nor funded by NASA. NASA's contribution is in helping to guide curriculum -- essentially, consulting. Space Camp is a private endeavor, and, as with most private institutions, attendance doesn't come cheap. Programs range from three days to eight days long, and tuition varies based on the age range, duration and season. But you're typically looking at an average of $150 per person, per day; fall and winter are bargain seasons and cost closer to $120 per day.
So what exactly does a $1,300, eight-day summer camp look like? Something like the greatest hands-on museum trip ever -- if you could experience microgravity, multi-axis rotation and 4 G-forces at a museum.
A Trip to Space Camp
One thing Space Camp offers that you won't find elsewhere are simulators. In addition to mock space shuttles, Mission Control Centers and simulated trips to the International Space Station, there are physical simulators. The simulators include:
Five Degrees of Freedom (5DF) -- The 5DF is a space-walk simulator that was used for training during the Gemini program in the 1960s. It's a seat that floats a half-inch (1.27 cm) above the ground and spins freely on two axes -- front-to-back and side-to-side. The occupant uses controls to move the unit along a third, up-and-down axis, which creates a moonwalk sensation.
Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) -- The MMU simulates extra-shuttle missions in Earth orbit. It's the kind of robotic device an astronaut would use to do shuttle repairs in microgravity. A seat moves around freely on all axes with no friction, and the operator uses a joystick to try to control the unit's movements.
Microgravity -- The microgravity training chair is a simulator that prepared astronauts for moonwalks during the Apollo program. It hangs from springs that offset five-sixths of a person's weight, replicating the experience of moving in a microgravity environment.
Multi-axis -- This simulator consists of a seat attached to a spherical frame, and it spins freely and simultaneously on all three axes.
Space Shot -- The Space Shot is sort of like a mini roller coaster. It accelerates rapidly so the student experiences 4 G-forces (four times the force of gravity). This creates the sensation of escaping Earth's gravitational pull.
Zero-G Wall -- This simulator creates the experience of moving around in a zero-gravity environment. The student sits in a chair suspended from a swivel frame. The chair moves up and down with no effort at all as the occupant tries to move around and accomplish tasks.
Space Camp activities are pretty wide-ranging. Depending on the program and duration, a student might get to build a robot, design a space mission to Mars, train on a ropes course, meet an astronaut, launch a rocket and pick up some fighter pilot skills. It's a pretty unique experience, and according to the folks behind the program, it's more than fun and games; it's an investment in the future. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center estimates that more than 90 percent of graduates take more math and science classes than they did before attending Space Camp [source: Space Camp]. It's hard not to be inspired by a moonwalk.
For lots more information on Space Camp and related topics, study the links on the next page.
How Space Camp Works: Author's Note
I was 10 years old when "Space Camp" hit theaters, and from what I remember, it created a stir. To a bunch of fourth graders, it just seemed so possible that a bunch of brainy kids could accidentally end up in space and find their way home. It was a lesson in perseverance, self-confidence and team work.
Before I began researching actual Space Camp for this article, I had assumed it was like the astronaut-training program portrayed in the movie. Knowing now that it's more a "let's make math and science exciting for kids" camp, I'm no less impressed. In fact, I may be more so, at least as far as the greater good is concerned. Very, very few people have what it takes to become an astronaut, but countless people have what it takes to excel in math and science to ultimately become leaders in technology, research, education, engineering and so many other fields. On the off chance that U.S. schools ever have more money than they know what to do with, I'd like to put mandatory Space Camp on the table as something to spend on. It's tough to beat microgravity for stimulating interest (not to mention perseverance, self-confidence and team work).
- Astronaut Training Simulators at Space Camp. SpaceCamp.com. http://www.spacecamp.com/media/press/Camp%20Programs/Space%20Camp/Astronaut%20Training%20Simulators%20at%20SPACE%20CAMP.pdf
- Blasting Off. Desoto Explorer. May 7, 2008. http://www2.desotoexplorer.com/news/2008/may/07/blasting/
- Camp Kennedy Space Center. NASA.gov. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/camp_faq.html
- Future Astronaut Training Program. Cosmosphere.org. http://www.cosmo.org/camps/
- Space Academy. SpaceCamp.com. http://www.spacecamp.com/media/press/Camp%20Programs/Space%20Camp/Space%20Academy%20Facts%20in%20Brief.pdf
- SpaceCamp.com. http://www.spacecamp.com/category.php?cat=Space
Space Camp: Cheat Sheet
Stuff you need to know:
- Space Camp isn't an astronaut-training program; it's a program designed to get kids excited about math and science by way of space-related activities.
- The driving force behind the Space Camp idea was Dr. Werner von Braun, head of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in the 1960s and early '70s.
- Space Camp is not run by NASA. It's not even associated with it. The camp is run by the privately funded U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and NASA personnel consult on the curriculum.
- Space Camp isn't just for kids. It's open to people ages 9 and up.
- Space Camp tuition runs anywhere from $500 to $900, depending on length of program and time of year. Scholarships are available.