Space Camp: Rocket to the Future : Children Attending Alabama Center Cross a Time Warp

Times Staff Writer

Today I learned about early rockets such as the V-2, which used solid fuel. I saw many rockets and engines. We had a demonstration on how heat tile could resist an extremely intense flame. --From the astronaut log of Jeremy Eisen, 13, of Harrisburg, Pa.

The boy boarding Republic flight 571 bound from Huntsville to Memphis attracted the flight attendant's attention because of his cap and T-shirt bearing the logo, "United States Space Camp."

"Oh, you've been to summer camp," the woman said. "What did you make there?"

The boy could not show her a potholder or beaded belt. His sole camp crafts project--a rocket--had crashed. He might have mentioned that he had learned to fly the space shuttle at camp, but that would have confused the airline attendant, so he took his seat without going into detail.

While some kids return from summer camp matured and perhaps a bit better able to relate to their parents, children who've attended Space Camp at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center cross a kind of technological time warp. Suddenly they're citizens of the future, while parents, teachers and flight attendants are left struggling to understand them.

"It's tough for the teacher in the hinterlands trying to deal with this space camper we've returned to her. I feel for her," said camp director Edward Buckbee.

Wonderland of Gadgetry

When parents arrive on the fifth and final day to tour the camp--a wonderland of genuine and mock-up space gadgetry housed in a separate building at what is billed as "Earth's Largest Space Museum"--some get the feeling they're walking into a world that belongs to youth. Adults who grew up in awe of space travel are the outsiders here. Kathryn and John Taylor of Los Angeles, for instance, were forced to refer to a glossary of NASA terms to interpret their children's new language.

The Taylors arrived to find their 13-year-old, Bryan, upside down in the Five Degrees of Freedom simulator, a training device that allows astronauts to practice tasks to be completed in weightlessness. Bryan's tennis shoes were lodged in restraints above his head as he attempted to carry out equipment repairs in simulated zero gravity.

The Taylors' other son, Eric, 11, had both hands on a mission control panel originally used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for training astronauts in the Skylab program. (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville sponsors the camp.) He was acting as systems director on a simulated shuttle mission.

Both parents kept a respectful distance from the junior shuttle crew. "They (Eric and Bryan) have obviously been busy," observed John Taylor, an industrial real estate developer. "They never called home once all week."

Jeremy Eisen's astronaut log:

We learned about the evolution of spacesuits, from the Navy Mark IV to the Apollo 17, and noticed different zipper placement and helmet size. We learned about the pressurization of the suits, their backup systems, waste disposal, liquid cooling, etc.

The counselors are not much older than their charges at space camp, who are from 11 to 16 years old. (Camp sessions for adults are being introduced.) Youths and counselors alike are fascinated by the space garb. Just donning the pale blue shuttle jump suits--identical in appearance to ones worn on recent shuttle missions--seemed to inspire the campers to take their make-believe roles seriously .

There was much talk about what uses the jump suits would be put to once the campers got home. "You'd really wear that thing to school?" Travis Hamilton of Fremont, Calif., asked Melissa Evans of Highland Mills, N.Y., as they puttered over experiments in the space station.

"The suits are my favorite part of the whole thing (Space Camp)," said counselor Brad Dale, a 20-year-old management major from Auburn University in Alabama. "I think the neatest picture I could have of myself would be in a spacesuit--not just any suit, but an Apollo suit."

In the glass-enclosed suit-up area that approximates a sterile astronaut changing room, Dale searched for labels in the lining of the spacesuits to see whose hand-me-downs the campers might be trying on. There was Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan's backpack, he pointed out; Skylab astronaut Alan Bean's gloves. . . .

While actual equipment used in space launches is protected in the Space Museum or the Smithsonian for its historic importance, many items used in training and as backup on missions have been donated to the camp by NASA, which also provides technical experts to speak to campers on matters such as rocket design. NASA and the astronauts themselves--many of whom have stopped by when in Huntsville to spend a few hours with the campers--are friendly to the camp because it promotes interest in the space program in a way the schools do not.

"There is no part of organized education that meets this need of kids (to learn about space exploration)," said museum spokesperson Lee Sentell. "There may be a couple of pages on Alan Shepard and John Glenn in the last chapter of the science textbooks, but there's nothing about how to prepare for a career in the 21st Century."

About 3,000 Campers

This summer, about 3,000 children will attend Space Camp. (Campers each pay from $350 to $400 for the weeklong program and must have a referral from a math or science teacher.) By 1990, the staff's goal is to have 10,000 children a year using the facility, according to Sentell.

"We're not trying to generate astronauts by the gross here," said director Buckbee. "Space Camp is to excite young people about science and math at an early age so that they'll go back and take more of those subjects in school. We make it very clear to them that there are only going to be a very few astronauts."

While some of the campers did tell a reporter that they'd like to be astronauts, they were as practical about the prospects as if they were weighing careers in sales.

Scott Spiro of Irvine, Calif., for instance, said that he's thinking about taking his computer skills to space, but only now that the shuttle has evolved to the point where living quarters are roomy and comfortable. Lincoln Westcott of Los Altos Hills, Calif., (near San Jose) said he wants to be an astronomer and he believes learning about space travel is just part of the job.

Counselor Regina Champion, a student at Athens State College near Huntsville, said that the campers in her group have few fanciful notions about space and lots of hard information. "About 75% of them have seen (the movie) 'The Right Stuff,' and I get a lot of them who've already read the shuttle operators manual."

Added Buckbee: "They (the children) understand the shuttle. It's their kind of machine. It takes off like a rocket, lands like an airplane. They see it as their machine and the space station (scheduled to be launched in 1992) as their place."

Astronaut log:

We learned about gravity. We watched Brian in the multi-axis simulator. It is to simulate being in an environment where one does not know his orientation. It was awesome when we jumped (on the 1/6 gravity machine). It felt like we were almost free.

A counselor said good luck and secured the door to the orbiter model, leaving a crew of seven children inside to begin their trip to space. This is what they had been training for all week. Even those who had been pegged as the most dedicated goof-offs settled down at this point--it somehow mattered to them all that they complete the mission correctly.

The Discovery Crew strapped shoulder harnesses over both sides of their bodies and donned headphones that connected them to the campers operating mission control in an adjoining room.

"Can we have it quiet in the cockpit, please?" asked commander Rod Milam of St. Louis.

Banks of red and white lights illuminated the panel. The orbiter model--built on a hydraulic base that once was used by NASA to teach astronauts to drive on the moon--tilted nose-up in preparation for launch.

"Discovery, you can go for launch," came the word from mission control.

"T minus ten. T minus nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six. . . . " At five, a roar enveloped the shuttle. At liftoff on the count of one, the engine noise doubled in volume and the capsule began shaking, throwing the crew against their restraints. Images from an actual shuttle launch filled the video screens at the front of the cockpit.

When the noise subsided, the astronauts learned from mission control: "The shuttle has cleared the tower." And a few moments later: "The shuttle is now traveling at the speed of sound."

After all that rattling and shaking, the young crew sat silently for a moment inside the now-serene orbiter, feeling almost as if they were floating.

Astronaut log:

We placed our model rockets on the launch pad. We also placed crickets in th e cargo bay and were worried about the danger of the ignition. My first stage fired . However my second stage failed , resulting in a fall from about 30 feet. The nose cone was forced into th e cargo bay, cracking the plastic and crushing my cricket.

During their missions, Space Campers had real-life problems thrown at them. Director Buckbee, a fan of realism, tries to introduce to the campers situations encountered on actual shuttle flights.

Inevitably then, some of the missions ended in disaster. Either someone failed to notice a fire in the orbiter in time to put it out, or mission control goofed and guided the shuttle down miles from a runway.

In an ABC Motion Pictures film to be based on the Huntsville camp, an underage crew will accidentally launch a real shuttle, and the children will be forced to use those skills they've learned in the mission simulation.

Sentell said that the staff of Space Camp can't wait for the movie's release next summer so that can find out "If the campers' training was good enough so that they will be able to work as a team and bring the shuttle home."

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