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photo of two kids in EVA garb looking at mockup of Endeavour

An Astronaut in Seven Days

by Ahu Shahrabani

"10, 9, 8, 7, 6, ..."
"We have SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) ignition"
"2, 1. We have liftoff of the Shuttle Endeavour!"


Neil Armstrong? No, not quite. Actually it's 15 kids at Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama. These kids, along with 350 others, are here with the same two things in mind: to learn about space and have fun! The children that signed up for this weeks session are divided into 16 groups. A major corporation sponsors each group, and the group that I am in is sponsored by United Technologies.

On the first day, nervous and excited, we shuffle into a large conference room and are told to sit down with our groups. After settling down with our group members, we meet our night counselors. Our counselor reels off a list of rules, a list most of us have become familiar with like the back of our hands by the time we are teens. We play a game to get to know our peers, the group members whom we will be spending about twelve hours of each day for the next week with. Even though most of us are tired and exhausted from the journey we are eager to begin our training. It will have to wait until the next day, though.

At 6:30 a.m. the next morning, the counselors come into our small dorms and wake us up. We moan and groan at the early time at which we must rise. Some drag themselves into the showers, while others opt for the night shift. At breakfast, we scarf down the food, many suffering from jetlag. There are trainees from all over the world. Two groups have come from Puerto Rico and Greece. Two boys are there from Canada and Great Britain. NASA has started several Space Camp programs in other parts of the world, but none of them have the Space Academy program.

The first thing we do Monday morning is to fill out a questionnaire inquiring about the positions we want to assume for our missions later in the week. There are a wide variety of choices, ranging from positions on the orbiter (keep in mind that these are all replicas of the real shuttle and space station), Space Station, Space Lab, and, of course, Mission Control. Our training for the first of two missions starts on Tuesday.

Those who have been selected for the job of Payload Specialists get to learn how to do an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) or space walk. They train on a simulator called the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit). All the simulators used at camp are, or at one time, were, the same equipment used by NASA to train astronauts. Those who are in MOCR (Mission Operations Control Room), or Mission Control, get to practice their lines, how to use their headsets, and what screens to read on the computer to get the correct information.

Mission Control has a range of jobs within itself. There is the Flight Director, CAPCOM, Launch/Landing Director, SSO (Spacecraft Systems Officer), WXT (Weather and Tracking Officer), and SOCC (Station Operations Control Center Officer). These are the people who do not go into space, but monitor everything from down below.

The real mission starts Wednesday afternoon and finishes two full hours later. It was successful, but we faced many problems which the counselors were instructed to throw at us. We solved them all, and learned how to work as a team while we were at it.

We trained on several simulators that were very realistic, and lots of fun. The 1/6 Chair is my personal favorite. It is as if you are in an environment at 1/6 Earth's gravity. Why 1/6 of Earth's gravity? Because that is the gravity of the moon. This simulator replicates what it is like to walk or rather bounce, on the moon. When you get on the simulator you find it hard to walk forward, and that you are only going up. It takes a lot of practice to be able to walk normally.

student being spun in multi-axis trainer The Multi-Axis Trainer is another favorite of many. It is a chair attached to a large metal ring, which is attached to a larger metal ring, which is attached to an even larger metal ring. These three rings spin you around in different directions. Many people who get motion sickness are hesitant to ride the MAT, but anybody who knows about the simulator can tell you that you will not get sick on it. The MAT is specially designed to spin around your stomach, so while the rest of your body is spinning in all sorts of directions (never the same direction twice), your stomach remains stationary. The MAT simulates the feeling when you are tumbling through space.

The 5DF (Five Degrees of Freedom) is much like the MMU; it simulates the degrees of freedom you have while in space, hence the name. There are actually six degrees of freedom in space, but on Earth we cannot simulate up and down. The five degrees of freedom that the 5DF simulates are yaw, pitch, roll, right-to-left, and front-to-back. Both the 5DF and the MMU are designed to "float". This is done by creating a cushion of air underneath the simulator which it can float on. The only difference between the 5DF and the MMU is that on the MMU you are capable of controlling your own movements, whereas on the 5DF you cannot.

Another part of our exciting week was to build model rockets and launch them. We built the rockets ourselves and took them to the launch sites near camp. It was mandatory for everyone to have wadding in his or her rockets, because that's what prevented the rocket from catching on fire. Unfortunately, some rockets caught on fire anyway and exploded in mid-air. It was like a miniature air show.

Space Academy was a once in a lifetime experience, and I recommend that if you have the opportunity, you should definitely attend. The tuition is $675 plus airfare. The staff is very detail and safety oriented, as well as very fun.


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