Finally posting a bit about my time at Space Camp. Summary: it was as much fun as any geek could pack into eight days. And there were rockets.
Follow along with the photos as you read, and it could almost be a picture book. Almost.
I’m trying to capture a feeling here, an elusive one. It’s the kind of feeling you get after having a profound dream; the feeling that you need to hold on tight to something fleeting, something as fragile as it is important. Bear with me for a moment, and we’ll see if I can pin it down.
I recently spent a week — 8 days, actually — in Huntsville, Alabama at U.S. Space Camp. It was a trip I’d wanted to take for years, since I realized that there was in fact a Space Camp program for adults and it was in fact within my reach. It took me 5 years and numerous postponements to get there. That may not seem like a long time, but consider that it was pre-9/11, pre-Columbia-accident, pre-X-Prize, pre-Dubya, and pre-Ben when I first thought of going. You can understand, then, how I felt right up to the last minute boarding the plane in Dallas: my destination was a hazy, half-imagined thing that couldn’t possibly stand up to the years of anticipation.
Luckily, I had one night to rest and get acclimated. Flights from San Diego to Huntsville were timed awkwardly, so I ended up flying in the day before the program started. I booked a room at the Marriott which shares the USSRC grounds. (I later found that camp regulars call it “Hab 4″ because it’s so close to the other “Hab” buildings.) I spent the evening reading sci-fi adventure novels, which is the closest thing to “rest” that I’m capable of. The whole evening felt like time in a waiting room, though: comfortable, almost forcibly relaxed, but with that little bit of anxiety about what I was going to do next.
Getting settled at Camp… oh, I have to digress here. I have no idea what to call the place, which is more than a little part of my problem. “Space Camp” is just begging to be marginalized, like it’s a place where space cadets go when band camp is otherwise booked. The more-accurate but less-recognized alternative, Advanced Adult Space Academy, still sounds like something Luke would complain about not being able to attend because he has to stay on the farm for another season. When I was asked why I was in Huntsville by a pleasant lady on the plane, I sidled around the name, trying “U.S. Space & Rocket Center” before finally having to call it Space Camp. Her eyes lit up at that. “Oh! Do they still do that?” Sigh.
Getting settled at Camp (hmph) was the usual nervous enterprise, but that was quickly overcome by the sheer joy of the place. It didn’t hurt that I started the morning by exploring the museum of space exploration artifacts, but my own mood was fueled by the infectious excitement of the other new arrivals. It soon became obvious that this wasn’t the realm of geeky kids, but of geeks of all ages. Our senior member was a 67-year-old tough-as-nails mililtary doctor, and the average age was probably closer to 50 than 30. Most of the group knew each other, repeat visitors who had grown close in previous missions. Four of us were youngsters, though, new to the adult program as well as in the 21-30 bracket. (The other three were twentysomethings, but I’m hip enough to fit in. Or childish enough. Or something.) We “Ankle Biters” took to each other quickly, teaming up whenever we saw the opportunity. We didn’t actually separate ourselves from the rest of the team, but more often than not we found ourselves together, both in structured and free time activities.
Amidst the mission briefings and space-history lectures, the week was punctuated with tests of skill and teamwork ranging from the mysterious Area 51 (of which I will speak no more) to rocketry (both water and fire) to robotics. “Kid in a candy shop” doesn’t half describe it. Here we were, young scientists and engineers, not just playing astronaut but geeking out on millions of dollars’ worth of robots, model rockets, simulators, walkie-talkies, GPS receivers, harnesses, and other hardware so specialized it was known primarily by NASA acronym. (Another spin in the MAT, anyone?) We weren’t just being allowed to play with the toys, we were being challenged to make extraordinary use of them, really push them to the limit. “Rockets? Hah! Our grounds are littered with rockets! To impress us you have to make something really special, out of cardboard and duct tape and pantyhose!”
To relax from all this great fun… One night, heady from an Ankle-Biter upset in the water rocket competition, we purloined ice cream, bananas, and cookies out of the cafeteria and made banana splits topped with Smarties. Another, David and I “aborted” to a sports bar at the Marriott to brainstorm about robots and the future of nuclear electric propulsion. Can you imagine playing hide-and-seek in a space museum and rocket park, after hours with a pair of walkie-talkies? If so, you can imagine what a nerdvana this place was, not the least because we shared it with so many fellow hard-core spaceheads.
Then there were the missions, simulated excursions on the Shuttle and International Space Station. Before I went, I wondered if “training” on the Shuttle would be more depressing than exciting. After all, it was designed 30 years ago and it’s likely to be decommissioned within a decade, assuming any Shuttle ever flies again. I even had the thought that an “X Camp” with X-Prize winners or a “Mars Camp” sponsored by the Mars Society might be a better idea. Once I was in the thick of it, though, it became obvious to me that the hardware didn’t matter at all, or at least not much. I could have been training for an Apollo mission to the Moon and it would have been just as exhilarating. Once you’ve been in a tiny room flipping switches, healing injuries, and chasing down anomalies for 24 hours, it doesn’t really matter if the outside is a Mars analog or simulated LEO. The result is still mind-altering, still addictive.
On my last day in Huntsville, only a few hours after graduation, the four of us went out for a celebratory lunch. The Canadians had never had southern barbecue, so we found a rib restaurant — wet wipes, paper plates, bibs and all — called Dreamland Barbecue. Perhaps it was the NASCAR-themed rocket model at the bar, perhaps it was the neon “NO FARTING” sign, but the whole experience was surreal. It didn’t help that we were all floating on a cloud of endorphins and sleep deprivation. The ribs were both bizarre and excellent, just like the week had been, just like my new friends were. Bizarre and excellent.
Travelling home turned out to be no rest from the Surreal World. From the sports broadcast on the van radio to the “zombie mall” decor of the Dallas airport, everything looked like a strange parody of itself, a little less than real. A lot of that was due to my own sleepwalking state, but at least some of it was true culture shock. With the difficulty of survival, the sheer monstrous complexity of the life support systems we rely on without a second thought, how could anyone think that any of these trinkets, schedules, or vague security warnings actually mattered? I knew what really mattered, and it fell neatly into two categories: the place I was leaving behind, and the family I was returning home to see.
Since I’ve been home, I can sense my mind trying to fit these extraordinary experiences into its understanding of my daily existence. Mostly, it spills over into my dreams: my bedroom is the middeck, we can’t launch until I zip up my blankets correctly, I have to stop my infant son from floating freely around the cabin… I wake up feeling disjointed. That feeling hits me again at odd times during the day; I’ve been through a life-changing experience. Shouldn’t my life be changed somehow?
It’s a feeling you might get after watching a “superhuman” movie like Star Wars or The Incredibles, assuming you get drawn in the way I do. You exit the theater feeling like the concrete and metal landscape around you is missing something, devoid of the magic and suspense that were packed into every minute up to then. You should be able to run straight up that wall, or levitate over this crowd, right? Shouldn’t you be watching diligently for an attach from the alley, or listening for a cry for help?
In this case, I find myself wanting to do something — anything — to make the dream of space travel a reality. Someone at Camp had mentioned that there was enough expertise among the 14 of us to mount a mission of our own. So why doesn’t that actually happen? Where do I go from here?
My mixed feelings toward NASA have been stirred up by this whole thing, too. Looking at photos of the Shuttle, I can’t help but see how beautiful it is, how complex and wondrous. SpaceShipOne, which is no slouch, ends up looking like a Volkswagen next to an orbiter which drains a swimming pool worth of fuel every 25 seconds to channel enough fire through its goblet-shaped Main Engines. My pragmatic side tells me that its beauty is its downfall, that the STS is too much of a hack to be of real practical value, but these are dreams I’m talking about!
After a time, I got back into my routine and normality — or the usual approximation — returned. One night, a few weeks after getting back, I went out walking with my infant son — our usual nighttime ritual. He’s been getting more interested in the sky, and he kept staring upward and outward. At one point I saw the Moon reflected in his eyes. Then it hit me. I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing all along. I’ll keep dreaming. We’ll keep dreaming.
And we’ll keep going back until the dream is real.