Rocket Kids

By David J. Hoff — May 14, 2003 11 min read
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Students from across the continent trek to Space Camp to learn the ‘right stuff’.

Kristina Ferrero and Kyle Gaiser stow their gear in a small storage box and start running down the items on the checklists. They check their temperatures and lung capacity, then make sure all their equipment is working and in the right place.

Upstairs, their commander and the pilot of the space shuttle Enterprise are flipping switches in the cockpit, telling Mission Control what they’re doing at every step of the way.

Gaiser and Ferrero have just about completed their tasks when they get a gentle reminder.

“You guys are probably going to want to sit down,” the voice from the corner suggests. “You’ve got 20 seconds to launch.”

Ferrero and Gaiser won’t be going into orbit on this spring afternoon. Still, they’ll be mimicking—as closely as possible—what astronauts do when they go into space. The teenagers are spending a week at Space Camp, getting an education in what astronauts do and the history of space travel, and catching a glimpse of life inside a space shuttle.

“You learn a ton,” says Lindsey Dominico, a 9th grader from Roseburg, Ore., one of 38 students from that town here at camp this spring, along with Gaiser, who hails from New York, and Ferrero, from Vermont.

Earlier in the day, Dominico and Jayce Clawson, classmates at Roseburg’s Joseph Lane Middle School, sit in the same seats that Gaiser and Ferrero had occupied. The four teenagers, who live across the country from each other, met two years ago when they attended the Space Academy and met up again last month when they enrolled in the Advanced Space Academy for older students.

For this one-hour mock flight, Dominico dons a headset in the Mission Control room. “It’s learning, but it’s also fun,” she says of her three trips to Space Camp since 1999.

Rocket Kids: Chloe Ruffin, a 7th grader from Roseburg, Ore., gets into her gear for a 'space walk.'

Counselor Tywana Franklin helps Chloe Ruffin, a 7th grader from Roseburg, Ore., get into her gear for a “space walk” at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. Students go through many of the same experiences as astronauts during their week’s stay at the camp.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

At Space Camp, kids of all ages—from elementary school through adulthood—get a hint of what it’s like to be an astronaut. They use the same equipment that astronauts use to simulate floating in space. They spend their days together much as a team of astronauts do as they prepare for missions. They train to go on simulated missions. And they walk through them as well, flipping switches and talking on two-way radios much like pilots, mission specialists, or Mission Control operators would.

“It’s as close as you can get,” says Aimee Tilson, who, like Dominico, is attending Space Camp for the third time.

Each year, more than 100 school groups come to Space Camp here at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a complex that includes a museum, an IMAX theater, and a courtyard filled with mammoth artifacts from the U.S. space program. From Interstate 465, visitors can find their way by driving toward the towering 363- foot-tall model of the Saturn V rocket, which propelled the Apollo missions to the moon.

Huntsville calls itself “America’s Space Capital.” At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s research facility one highway exit away from the camp, teams of rocket scientists designed the technology for the space program that won the race to the moon. Today, NASA still operates that facility. The nonprofit center, although separate from NASA, works closely with the space agency to make the Space Camp experience as close as possible to the real thing. The space center gets most of its funding from student fees and also raises money from corporate sponsorships. The state of Alabama and NASA provide a small amount of money as well.

Aside from the learning environment, the Space & Rocket Center has all the requisite ingredients of a camp: a cafeteria that serves food people complain about; dorm rooms campers say are too crowded; and recreational activities that aren’t part of the typical school day, such as shooting off model rockets that campers assembled themselves.

The heart of the experience, though, is on the crowded floor with models of the Enterprise, the Endeavor, the International Space Station, and the mission-control centers running each of them.

 Studentsmeasure the strength of their breath

Kyle Gaiser of Jamestown, N.Y., and Kristina Ferrero of Woodstock, Vt., prep for an Enterprise mission by measuring the strength of their breath and taking their temperatures. The pair met at a previous stay at Space Camp and befriended students from Roseburg, Ore.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The simulated missions are the highlight of campers’ experiences, but they are just a small part of it. Campers’ days are filled from wake-up till lights out with learning opportunities, team-building exercises, and training that prepares them to re-enact life on a space mission.

While these students simulate the space experience, the real-life space-shuttle program is in limbo as NASA investigators search for clues to the Feb. 1 breakup of the shuttle Columbia. The disaster may have put NASA in a holding pattern, but enthusiasm for space travel among campers hasn’t wavered.

“It kind of made me scared,” says Sam Denney, a 7th grader at Winston Middle School in a district neighboring Roseburg. After being here the first time in 2001, he decided he wanted to be an astronaut. The Columbia’s demise didn’t change his career goal. But he says: “The feeling that I might die up there kind of freaked me out.”

And the calamity did solidify his desire to become a mission specialist instead of a commander or a pilot, who fly the vehicle. “I don’t want to be in control of people’s lives,” he says.

For Shawn Anderson, a 7th grader at Joseph Lane Middle School, Columbia’s fate confirmed his desire to work in NASA’s Mission Control rather than fly in a spacecraft. “All along, I wanted to be in Mission Control,” says Anderson, who also came to Space Camp for the first time in 2001, “but that kind of finalized it.”

The boys’ attitudes are similar to most Roseburg students’, according to the trip’s organizer, Dan Tilson, Aimee Tilson’s father and a 6th grade teacher at Eastwood Elementary School.

“Every one of the kids said: ‘Yeah, it is a tragedy, but it shouldn’t stop us from exploring space,’ ” says Tilson, who has been bringing groups here from Roseburg every other year since 1995. “We take space travel for granted, but it’s a dangerous business. It’s kind of a hostile environment, and it’s never going to be 100 percent safe.”

Space Camp officials say they haven’t noticed a decline in interest since the Columbia accident. In the first week of April, the Roseburg group and a school group from Chicago are here, as well as children who signed up for the experience on their own, like Ferrero and Gaiser.

It’s 7:30 p.m. A team of 5th and 6th grade boys leaves a short and energetic game of four-square and heads toward the shuttle Pathfinder.

The Space & Rocket Center combines lessons in science and history with the pleasures and complaints of going to camp.

Even though it’s been more than 12 hours since breakfast, the boys’ day isn’t ready to end. They’re about to get a lesson on the space-shuttle program.

Suzanne Clayton, their counselor, leads them to the Pathfinder on display in the camp’s courtyard. Clayton is one of the many young adult counselors who lead campers through their morning-to-night program of learning, training, and mission simulations. Since the days are so long, each group starts the morning with one counselor and finishes in the evening with another.

Clayton tells the boys about the Pathfinder, the model of the shuttle that NASA used to design the airplane that sometimes ferries the shuttle across the country. Clayton reviews the function of each part of the craft—the booster rockets, the external fuel tank, and the orbiter. She quizzes students on all sorts of space facts: the name of the first woman to enter space; the name of the first U.S. woman to enter space; the name of the first American woman to pilot the space shuttle.

“Who is Christa McAuliffe?” Clayton finally asks.

“The first woman pilot?” one boy says hesitantly. Then, there’s silence.

“Don’t you guys know who Christa McAuliffe is?”

“No!” comes the chorus.

the 1/6 chair

Sam Denny dodges a crater in the “1/6 chair,” which simulates the pull of gravity that astronauts experienced on the moon. Even though the recent Columbia accident scared him, the 7th grader still wants to be an astronaut.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Clayton starts telling the story of McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher-astronaut who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch in 1986. That, like many of the U.S. space program’s historic moments, happened before this group was born.

The lesson is one reason the Roseburg public schools excuse 38 students from school for a week to attend space camp. They don’t visit during spring break, Tilson says, because Space Camp is a learning experience on a par with school. The trip is open to 5th graders and older students in the district’s 12 schools who are willing to shell out tuition and airfare. This year, the bill ran $1,100 a camper, most of which is paid by families, although some students raise money on their own.

Before they trek from Oregon to Alabama, Tilson organizes monthly meetings where the students learn about the history of the space program and complete assignments. Every participant had to give a presentation this year on the accomplishments of one space mission.

Once the campers arrive in Huntsville, their days are filled with lectures about the science of rocketry and the early days of the space program—usually while sitting next to displays of those spacecrafts in the museum. They learn about the science that propelled the crafts into orbit, and even get quizzed on what they learned during the Space Bowl—an academic competition between teams in a game-show format.

“It’s really cool to learn about space,” says Aimee Tilson. “In school, you don’t really learn about it.”

“Most of the stuff at school is review,” says Shawn Anderson, the Joseph Lane Middle School 7th grader. “This is all new stuff.”

Sitting underneath the Pathfinder, the boys show that they actually did know a lot about Christa McAuliffe, even if they didn’t recognize her name. As Clayton starts to tell the story of the ill-fated mission, they interrupt her to fill in the blanks.

“She died in the Challenger,” says Andrew Walkup, a 5th grader at Hucrest Elementary School.

“After 79 seconds,” adds Thaddeus Davis, a 5th grader at Rose Elementary School.

Back at the Enterprise’s Mission Control, Lindsey Dominico, Aimee Tilson, and a male classmate talk the Enterprise’s crew through their tasks.

Twelve television screens light up the room. One shows the pilot and the commander on the flight deck operating their craft. Another charts the shuttle’s course over the Atlantic Ocean, across southern Africa, and as it heads toward Australia.

Dominico talks through her headset to Kristina Ferrero and Kyle Gaiser as they simulate a space walk in the Enterprise’s cargo bay. Gaiser is attached to the shuttle’s robotic arm and positions himself next to a satellite. Dominico reads from a manual telling him which switches he needs to flip, first to deactivate the satellite, then repair and reboot it. Gaiser eventually tests the satellite so they see how it works.

The procedures are the same ones that Dominico conducted earlier in the day when she had the chance to wear a harness that allowed her to float about the cargo area. “It was cool,” she says. “You just kind of fell, and you were caught.”

Aimee Tilson sits next to Dominico, switching headsets so Tilson can juggle two jobs. Because attendance in the Advanced Space Academy is low this week, Tilson’s responsible for monitoring the space shuttle to ensure it stays on time and for overseeing scientists in the space station. While the student- astronauts are conducting scientific experiments that include spinning in a chair and measuring the effects on their bodies, Tilson is keeping track of the safety of their vessel.

Once in a while, Tilson interrupts them. “Hey guys,” she says, “do you have a warning light?”

A battery is losing its charge and needs to be replaced. She reads through manuals to help them fix it.

Model shuttle Pathfinder

Counselor Suzanne Clayton teaches campers about the full-size model shuttle Pathfinder, hanging above them. It was used as a model in designing equipment for the U.S. space-shuttle program.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

While this one-hour mission project is simple and mostly follows a script that counselors have written for them, Tilson and Dominico know tomorrow will be different. Then, they and the rest of their team will be on a six-hour simulated mission on the Enterprise.

On the prolonged mission, counselors will pose problems that are too complicated to be solved simply by looking at the manuals in front of them. Instead, the students will have to use all the knowledge they’ve gathered here to figure out what they can do to fix what goes wrong. It could be anything from treating a sick person on the space station to correcting a mechanical malfunction.

But right now, everything is going right with the mission. The satellite has been fixed and is floating in the atmosphere again. The scientific experiments on the space station are complete, and all the batteries are working.

The Enterprise has safely re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Upon landing, the TV screen in front of Dominico shows an animated version of the Enterprise landing on the runway. Its parachute pops open, and the shuttle slows to a stop.

“Enterprise comes home,” Dominico says, much as a NASA controller would. “Her flight crew is safely with her.”

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