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