Huntsville Alabama and Adult Space Camp: Mission to MarsOuter space has mesmerized humans since the dawn of the cavemen when their decor included weird rockets drawn on their cave canvasses. Launching into the dark void of space has captured the imaginations of science fiction dreamers to produce silent movies of the moon (A Trip To The Moon,1902); innumerable books,(From the Earth to the Moon is an 1865 novel by Jules Verne; TV shows such as Star Trek and movies like A Space Odyssey and more recently, Star Wars. Only fifty-six years have passed since the first rocket (MR-3) carrying Astronaut Allan B. Shepard Jr. tore into the fabric of our universe. The reality of space flight had begun.
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Huntsville Becomes Space CentralPrior to WWII, Huntsville was a small town of 13,150 residents known for growing watercress. The government decided on this remote, unknown town to build the Redstone Arsenal to build numerous munitions manufacturing plants for the war. No longer needed in postwar America, the Arsenal nearly closed when it was reassigned for missile research placing Dr. Werner von Braun as its director of the space program. Born in Germany, Dr. Von Braun was conscripted by the Nazi's to create bombs and was working in a remote station when the Nazis surrendered. Fortunately for us, the Americans were close by and, according to legend, Dr. von Braun walked over to the Americans waving a white flag claiming he no longer wanted to make weapons.
U.S. Space & Rocket CenterA group of journalists and I joined forces in Huntsville, Alabama to become honorary space cadets at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The center is a Smithsonian Affiliate and the Official Visitor Center for NASA as well as the Marshall Space Flight Center. It is also the showcase for Redstone Arsenal and defense programs.
Not Just for KidsAlthough we were on an abbreviated version of Space Camp, our itinerary afforded us a sampling of Adult Space Camp. Usually kids have all the fun, but at Rocket City adults can too. We were immediately given our blue flight suits to begin a tour of the center showcasing its history as we walked by enormous rocket ship replicas in Space Shuttle Park and Rocket Park which displays 27 missiles and rockets.
Davidson Center for Space ExplorationThis building houses the original Saturn V Rocket. It lies horizontally and stretches through the entire center: The five rocket boosters are huge. Hands-on exhibits are situated around it: kids' play areas, the Skylab Orbital Workshop, a SLS 1:10 Scale Model, a Lunar Module, a Mobile Quarantine Facility (that looks like a quonset hut), a rock sample from the moon, an Apollo 16 Capsule and a V2 rocket. To sample and discover all the exhibits was fascinating and innocuous, but a few of my enthusiastic fellow astronaut- trainees got a reality check when they crawled into a module and couldn't get out.
On Thursday evenings from March through October, the Saturn V Hall in the Davidson Center turns into a German Biergarten complete with an oom-pah band while customers eat bratwurst and polka. I couldn't deduce any reason for this, but it's fun.
Mission to Mars TrainingBefore we could tackle our mission to Mars, we needed some training. So the first challenge was to experience what it felt like to walk on the moon's surface. Sandman, our trainer, (real name Doug) pulled down the ⅙ Gravity Chair suspended from the ceiling for me to sit on and strapped me in with multiple straps. I was still in my blue flight suit, but I also wore a helmut and space boots that were too big for me. Then I traversed the moon pad three times while Sandman held a rope attached to me so I wouldn't fly away.With trepidation I took my first step and bounced in the air. With each step, I gained confidence and bounced higher and higher: I felt like I was flying. Elated, I started dancing in the air and my boots flew off, then I bounced sideways, then in circles--then Sandman reeled me in. Needless to say, it was great fun. Next up was the multi-axis trainer: this was a lot more serious.This device simulates what would happen if for some reason you lost control and fell through space (remember the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock).
I sat in this round contraption, well strapped in, and was told real astronauts train on this and not to worry because my center of gravity was in the right place so I wouldn't get sick; that advice made me a bit nervous. As the machine started to twirl slowly, I commented, "This is a piece of cake; it's fun!". Then it twirled faster and added a spin to its choreography until it was at full throttle and I screamed, "Stop". I walked drunkenly back to the bench to literally collect myself.
On the Mission to MarsNow we were ready for our Mission to Mars. Our team of four assumed three different roles: Mission Control, Orbiter Crew, Commander of the Crew, and Mission Specialists (me).The Orbiter Crew was the coolest because they got to wear the big white spacesuits and helmets and were suspended by wires to repair the ship. However, I later learned that the spacesuits were very hot and repairing the spacecraft while dangling was very difficult.
My job as Mission Specialist was to control the land rover via a controller (similar to an X-Box controller) to explore Mars and not crash into anything, like a hole or a big dune. To complicate matters, I could only control it left or right. My colleague could only control it forward or backward. It was like trying to co-ordinate your right hand with someone else's left hand. For our team it was: Mission accomplwashed!
Future aspirations of the Space & Rocket CenterAccording to Dr. Deborah Barnhart, CEO and Executive Director, "The Space Camp experience cracks the cosmic egg of those who train with us, and launches them boldly toward their own future trajectory. Providing them with knowledge and personal experience needed for living and working in space gives them the tools to shape their careers and elevate their aspirations. There is no more noble or important mission for our next generation---the Mars Generation."
Anyone of any age can go to Space Camp and anyone can be an astronaut--just apply!
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Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida and now lives near Washington DC. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines.
Photos courtesy of U.S. Space & Rocket Center