Looking for some way to combine your next vacation with your favorite avocation, aviation? Maybe something beyond adding a new rating but which nonetheless includes a learning experience? Maybe ... learning what it's like to train as an astronaut on the space shuttle? If so, have we got a deal for you! AVweb contributor Ron Wanttaja recently returned from the Space Camp facility in Huntsville, Ala., after participating in a weeklong program designed strictly for adults. This is not your father's dude ranch.
December 31, 2000
camps are hot. They started with "Dude Ranches," places where the
city-born could ride the prairies with a broad Stetson on their noggins and a
whiff of sweaty horse in their nostrils. From that simple Western beginning,
fantasy camps have branched out into dozens of fields. You can now indulge
your dreams of being a pro baseball, football, or basketball player. You can
race cars, you can ride bulls, you can luge or play jazz or learn how to make
a guitar. You can even play James Bond at a covert operations camp ... or, if
that sounds too strenuous, attend a three-day "Beer Camp" in
For pilots, there are a number of "fighter ace for a day"
programs, using a variety of aircraft for simulated air combat. You can strap
on an ex-military trainer and pretend you're hunting Fokkers over the Somme,
or MiGs over Iraq. But there's a level of the pilot pyramid even above that of
fighter jock: those who ride into space atop a flaming rocket. The fighter
world can have their F-14s and their calls of "Fox Two." Some of us
fondly remember Project Mercury and "We have liftoff ... and the clock is
operating!" And that's where our own fantasies lie. We sit at our desks,
we fly our Cessnas, we may even push airline iron from Tedium to Apathy and
back. But every time a TV screen shows the Space Shuttle heading towards the
Big Black, we stop. We watch. And in our heart of hearts, we curse our bad
eyesight, we curse our high school math scores and we curse any of the myriad
other reasons we didn't make it into the astronaut corps.
Well, buck up. It's time to sign up for Space Camp and live the fantasy.
Living The Fantasy
It started for the pre-teen set. Space Camp, in Huntsville, Ala., began in
1982 as a weeklong activity for grade-schoolers. But within two years, the
Space Camp folks had added Space Academy for the teenagers, and just a year
after that, they brought through their first adult group. They've grown quite
a bit over the years. They added programs for older teens, teachers, and
corporations. The initial facility in Huntsville was soon augmented by a
second site in Titusville, Fla. Space Camps popped up all over the world ...
in California, Canada, Japan, Belgium, and even Turkey.
hadn't paid much attention to it, myself. After all, I've worked as a Space
Systems Engineer for almost 25 years. The space hankerings of an old friend,
Blake Ortner, burned hotter than my own. For years, Blake had talked about
going to Advanced Space Academy for Adults. Then this year, he turned 40. His
wife and father-in-law bought him a week at camp ... and his ol' buddy Ron
decided to go with him.
The Huntsville Space Camp operation is based at the U. S. Space and Rocket
Center (USSRC), a museum located just outside NASA's Marshall Space Flight
Center. The center features a considerable array of space flight artifacts,
including an outdoor "rocket park" with displays of vehicles ranging
from the V-2 to the Saturn V to a full-size Space Shuttle, external tanks,
solid boosters, and all.
When Blake and I boarded the bus for the short trip from the Huntsville
airport to the Space Camp facility, we started to worry a bit. The only other
people on the bus were in their twenties ... barely. For a while, it looked
like we might end up being the crotchety old-timers at the camp. Not to worry,
though. We ended up being right around the average age of the attendees. There
was gray hair aplenty, and some that wasn't gray looked suspiciously
bottle-generated. Professions varied widely ... from an Australian nanny to a
Washington lobbyist; from an Ohio lawyer to, well, a Seattle aerospace
engineer. About 50 people had enrolled for our one-week session; about a third
of the questions I had was how well the camp adjusts to having adults, instead
of kids. Would we be confined to our quarters when not in training, or handed
demerits for minor infractions? Part of it, I suppose, was guilt ... after
all, I hadn't sewed nametags inside my clothing like the "Camper's
Checklist" said. The camp quickly put those fears to rest. We were issued
badges that would allow us to exit and enter the site at any time of the day
or night, and they otherwise made it clear that we weren't to be as closely
controlled as the kids. Our first evening at camp included viewing a feature
film in the IMAX theater with a wine-and-cheese intermission. We didn't have
"reveille" like the kids did, just a counselor coming by right
before breakfast to make sure no one had overslept.
The $899 fee for the weeklong Advanced Space Academy includes the loan of a
NASA-style flight suit, meals, and housing. The meals were cafeteria-style,
with a selection of entrees. Housing was in the main dormitory, in
seven-person rooms with bunk beds and lockers. The space-age architecture of
the dorms probably appeals to the kids, but my aged (and heavy) bones rebelled
somewhat against the long climb to the upper bunk and the thin mattress that
awaited me. While there were soft-drink and candy machines in the dorm, the
closest coffee was a few hundred yards away in another building ... rather
hard for those with a caffeine jones at 6:30 a.m. Adult campers who prefer
private rooms with a few more amenities might be advised to make reservations
at the Marriott that shares the USSRC parking lot.
Other buildings on the USSRC grounds house other Space Camp facilities,
such as the classrooms, environment simulators, and Martian mission facility.
However, the main training floor, with its Shuttle Orbiter, Space Station, and
Mission Control simulators, is located within the main museum building. This
meant we often had a pack of gawking tourists watching us, but it also meant
we could quickly stroll into the museum when we had free moments.
that we had that much free time, of course. Space Camp gives you your money's
worth, with training beginning immediately after breakfast and running until
10:00 or 11:00 at night. The camp curriculum tracks that of astronaut training
... classroom sessions, practice with training aids, and short-duration
simulations, leading up to a detailed six-hour Extended Duration Mission (EDM)
on our last evening at camp. To someone familiar with conventional training
programs, the scheduling seemed a bit chaotic. We were thrown into the
simulations, in fact, before we'd received one bit o' book learnin' on the
Not that we minded. The training floor included four ... count them, four
... full-sized replicas of the Shuttle Orbiter forward section, including the
flight deck and the mid-deck. I think they would have had a mutiny if we
hadn't been scheduled to use the simulators the first day at camp. Ultimately,
though, the scheduling scheme made sense. The classroom material was easier to
take when it was split up a bit (remember, this is supposed to be fun),
and it let the Space Camp planners use the facilities more efficiently.
Working in aerospace as long as I have, I expected to find the classroom
work a touch tedious, and was curious about how good the "amateur"
instructors were. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the courses. It was a
joy seeing, for instance, how the Orbiter systems were laid out similarly to
the unmanned spacecraft I'd been working on. And there were several topics,
such as astronomy, that I hadn't considered for years. I felt a childlike
delight in standing on the nighttime grounds behind a telescope and looking at
the rings of Saturn for the very first time.
The speakers were bright, knowledgeable, and presented the material well.
Most were college students working part-time at the Camp, yet they were able
to go surprisingly deep into the material to answer questions. I kept my ears
open, but wasn't able to "catch" any of the instructors in an error
in basic space physics. When they didn't know the answer, they didn't try to
bluff it out. They'd do off-hour research to find the information for us.
spends millions of dollars to develop high-tech training aids to prepare its
astronauts for space. Space Camp doesn't have that kind of budget. Instead,
the program has designed and built simplified trainers that provide much of
the same experience without the need for congressional funding or a standing
army of repair technicians.
Take simulating the Manned Maneuvering Units (MMUs), the little propulsion
units that allow Shuttle astronauts to fly freely through space. Space Camp's
MMU simulators float on air bearings. Trainees skitter across the floor,
controlling yaw, roll, and translation through hand controllers. True, there's
no vertical motion ... but the system doesn't require a computer-controlled
crane and multiple safety systems. Similarly, the 1/6th-G simulation consisted
of a traveling crane, some stout bungee cords, and a J-shaped seat. It wasn't
as high fidelity as a NASA simulator might be, but it let trainees do a
"moon-walk" that was quite similar to the old Apollo films.
The Underwater Astronaut Trainer (UAT) came fairly close to replicating the
experience in NASA's neutral buoyancy tanks. "There are two ways to
simulate weightlessness on Earth," said the instructor. "And this
way is the most comfortable." After basic SCUBA instruction, we dropped
to the bottom of Space Camp's 24-foot-deep water tank. A shuttle orbiter
pallet nestled there, with a simulated satellite attached. We swapped
"batteries" on the satellite, replaced hoses, and removed and
re-installed an antenna.
Upon enrollment, we'd signed up for one of three mission areas: payload
specialist, mission specialist, or pilot. For mission training, our 18-person
team split into three groups, one for the Shuttle Orbiter, the Space Station,
and the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR). We rotated assignments for
each session of training. In the MOCR, we acted as ground controllers for both
the Orbiter and Space Station missions. Multiple tiers of computer
workstations were ranged in front of large displays in front. Data was
presented on the computers, and the Orbiter and Space Station crew would
report anomalies that we would attempt to diagnose.
The Space Station included two main modules and one of the interconnecting
nodes. The modules are boxcar-shaped, with lockers and equipment lining the
walls inside. There, we performed experiments and handled basic station
...Pilots, Man Your Orbiters
the pilots, of course, the real attraction was the Shuttle orbiter simulators.
The orbiters at Space Camp are named after actual or proposed vehicles; the
Adult Space Academy uses "Enterprise." The Camp orbiters provide
varying levels of fidelity to the actual vehicle. Some provide only the
cockpit areas; others, like Enterprise and the newest, Intrepid, include the
aft crew station and side consoles as well.
Enterprise is a full-fuselage mockup, with the forward cabin with both the
mid and upper decks, a payload bay with a Spacelab module installed, and the
aft fuselage with the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods and a shortened
vertical stabilizer. Enterprise's payload bay is also truncated; it's 15 feet
shorter than the actual. The round side hatch provides entry to the middeck,
which is the main living quarters. A narrow ladder provides access to the
flight deck above.
On the flight deck, the commander sits in the left seat and the pilot in
the right. Both are surrounded by an incredible array of controls. Switches
are grouped on numbered panels; over 25 panels are accessible to the seated
commander or pilot, each with 10 to 50 controls or indicators on them. And
your job, Mr. or Ms. Pilot or Commander, is to learn their locations well
enough after two one-hour practice missions to be able to keep up with the
One thing one doesn't do on Enterprise, sadly, is actually "fly"
a simulator. Enterprise is a procedures trainer; the joysticks aren't actually
connected to anything. The flight instruments are just blueprints on the
forward panels, and the video monitors installed in the forward windows just
run a videotape taken from orbit. The disappointment quickly passed. There was
certainly enough to keep the pilot and commander busy, and "following
through" on the joystick during approach and flare to Edwards (while
continuing to execute the final checklist) was good substitute. Besides, who
wants to "crash" the simulator at the end of a six-hour mission and
ruin the whole crew's fun?
The week's training led up to the Extended Duration Mission. Our mission
would be to launch the Shuttle, rendezvous with the Space Station, and return
immediate problem was crew assignments. The folks in the pilot track, of
course, wanted to be in the orbiter instead of the station or the MOCR. The
decision was made to swap orbiter crews after Space Station docking, so now we
had three commanders and three pilots competing for four cockpit positions.
One commander decided he'd like to work as CAPCOM in the MOCR, and his pilot
agreed to take the flight director spot.
My friend Blake and I were the remaining commanders. We agreed that my crew
would take ascent, as my pilot and I had actually beaten the "par"
times for executing some of the pre-launch checklists. Blake and his pilot
would work the flight officer position on the Station. We'd swap over after
rendezvous, and Blake's crew would handle re-entry and landing. Counselors
(known as "Ghosts") would join us at the stations, both to initiate
emergency situations as required and, we were warned, to "float" any
object not secured while in orbit.
We boarded the shuttle, stowed our gear in the lockers, and took our
stations. We could monitor countdown and systems status on small CRTs in the
forward panel, and a central CRT showed an external camera view of the launch
stack. It was a night launch; stars shone in the forward windows. We checked
communications with CAPCOM, and settled down to the pre-launch sequences.
The countdown started at T-9 minutes, vs. the T-5 my pilot and I were used
to. We had to execute some new checklists, which meant some time wasted
scanning to find the new switches. Then we reached the T-5 minute point, and
our previous training took over. We quickly made up the 30 seconds or so we
At T-minus 30 seconds, control of the launch was turned over to the onboard
computers. At T-minus six seconds, a rumble filled the cockpit as the main
engines started. The pilot and I slid our throttles to 100 percent in case the
The timer hit zero. The rumble increased. The exterior monitor flashed as
the solid boosters ignited, and stars seemed to tremble as the Shuttle slid
"Houston, Enterprise, we have liftoff," I called over the
headset. Then, inaccurate or not, I added, "And the clock is
Derring-do in Orbit...
I kept my eyes on the main engine status lights during ascent. In our
training missions, we always lost an engine, and would then have to perform
one of the abort options. This time, the engines burned strong and steady. At
T-plus 50 seconds, we throttled down to minimize aerodynamic pressure, then
throttled up once Max-Q was passed. The solid rockets burned out and separated
at about T-plus 2 minutes. We pitched over to horizontal. Continents and
clouds moved past the windows.
T-plus eight minutes and 40 seconds, the main engines finished their burn. I
had just moved the Translational Hand Controller upward to move the orbiter
away from the just-separated External Tank ... when my pilot clutched his
stomach, screamed in simulated agony and collapsed dramatically across the
The "Ghosts" had struck!
After a moment's stunned surprise, I told two other crew members to
"float" the unconscious pilot out of his seat, and ordered one of
the mission specialists to take over as pilot. Though she'd never worked the
position before, we managed to get the payload doors open and the radiators
working, and to program the onboard computer to fire the OMS engines to enter
the rendezvous orbit. My pilot returned, miraculously cured, to be greeted by
an avionics bay overheat warning light. I had waited years to be able to say
it. I slid the headset mic slightly closer to my lips: "Houston, we have
No answer. Unbeknownst to us, the "Ghosts" had struck at Mission
Control, as well. One controller was down with an epileptic seizure, and the
several others had been "electrocuted" when water had dripped onto
their consoles during a hurricane.
The Space Station was having its problems as well. The crew were lifting
panels, trying to locate an air leak. One crewmember was struck by a piece of
("Ghost"-supported) loose gear, and red blobs marked
"blood" were floating through the cabin.
On Enterprise, an obnoxious red light and buzzer continued to announce
there was an overheating avionics bay, and now the payload and mission
specialists on the middeck were scrambling, trying to locate the source of a
smoldering fire. One found the fire by the simple expedient of lifting a piece
of paper from under a chair (it said, "Fire") and ended up being
treated for third-degree burns on his hands.
Still, we did it. Mission Control came back on line. The mission
specialists, one supported on the remote arm and the other on a
"Superman" rig to haul herself around the payload bay, fixed a balky
spacecraft and released it into orbit. Three hours into the mission, the space
station appeared in our forward windows. We secured our positions as the
orbiter docked, and swapped positions with the Space Station crew.
A different set of problems faced us aboard the station, while the new
orbiter crew faced a different set of anomalies and a fresh batch of crises
flared up in the MOCR. Eventually, we were forced to abandon the Space
Station, performing an "EVA" back to the orbiter for re-entry and
landing. I sat in the rear of the flight deck and watched Blake and his pilot
perform the descent. Cape Canaveral appeared in the windows. The pilot
deployed the landing gear and Blake came back on the stick as the threshold
passed below the orbiter's nose. Touchdown, speed brakes open, and finally,
"Nosewheel steering to off" to complete the final checklist item.
we rehashed the mission over drinks at a nearby bar. We laughed at the
"medical" emergencies, we told tales of solar flares in the Space
Station and water leaks in the MOCR. Blake and I dissected our stints as
commander. We handled the emergencies well enough, we'd thought, though we'd
both made the same error while programming one of the orbiter OMS burns. The
adrenaline was still flowing, and we were still psyched up.
The next day, we toured the Marshall Space Flight Center, then caught the
bus for the airport. On the Monday after our return home, Blake called,
laughing. He'd been listening to the NASA channel as the orbiter Discovery
prepared to re-enter after its space-station assembly mission. He'd overheard
the pilot and commander executing their checklists ... and they were identical
to the ones he'd performed on the long mission.
A different moment from the EDM sticks in my mind. We were about two hours
into the mission, working on one of the innumerable system anomalies. I was
hunched down, trying to find one of the switches on the center console.
"Looks like the Red Sea," said my pilot. I glanced up, and sure
enough, there was the Sinai peninsula sliding majestically past the cockpit
A double knock from behind caught my attention. The aft flight deck windows
showed two grinning Mission Specialists, wearing their "space
helmets," waving to us prior to starting their satellite repair.
Sure, we were actually ramrodding ground-bound boxes of plywood and
plastic. The "satellite" suspended over the Orbiter bay started life
as a septic tank (with a lot of cosmetic enhancement added, since). But I was
sitting in the commander's seat on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle, in my
blue NASA flight suit, the Earth was flowing smoothly by the cockpit windows,
and my crew was hard at work on a difficult mission. It seemed almost real.
And after all ... wasn't that the point?
While there are three Space Camp facilities in the U.S., only the Alabama
location offers the Adult camp. A weekend program is also available, though it
doesn't include some elements, such as the underwater training. The programs
do tend to book up early ... we made reservations six months in advance, and
had trouble getting the dates we wanted. If you go with a friend, register
together so you end up on the same team.
The program involves some bending and crawling through hatches and tunnels,
and climbing short ladders. This isn't continuous, though, and shouldn't be an
impact unless one has definite mobility problems. Attendees are required to be
at least 19 years old for the adult programs, with no upper age limit ...
they've had octogenarians through the program, performing everything including
the neutral buoyancy tank.
Taxi service is available from the airport in Huntsville, or one can sign
up (in advance) for the Space Camp bus. With the training day running until
10:00 p.m. or so every evening, there's really no need for a rental car. The
Marriott (assuming you wish to forgo dorm life) is in easy walking distance.
You are issued a flight suit for your time at camp, so you won't need
extensive changes of clothes. No laundry facilities are available. Bring a
camera, but I recommend a small compact model rather than a bulky SLR.
For further information, check
the Space Camp web site.