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Space Camp: A Little Slice of the Stars in Alabama

When I mention that I attended Space Camp, eyes never fail to widen. I’d like to hope it's out of amazement for such an incredible camp to exist. Deep down, however, I know it's because they did not realise how nerdy I really am. 

Space Camp is a haven for nerds. Unparalleled is the experience it offers to the budding youth who enter through its gates in Huntsville, Alabama. For those who may never experience ‘Space Camp’, I shall take you through those gates, if only metaphorically, and show how the simulators used at camp tie directly into NASA and the American space program.

At Space Camp, there are five major simulators. The Multi-Axis Trainer (MAT), the 1/6th gravity chair, the Five Degrees of Freedom chair or 5DF, the Underwater Astronaut Trainer or UAT, and the Mission Simulators. 

The MAT is a simulator that sought to recreate being inside a spacecraft and suffering an uncontrollable tumbling. The MAT consists of three concentric rings with a chair in the middle. All of these components rotate independently of each other to produce a disorienting effect. NASA used a similar device known as the MASTIF for its Mercury astronauts in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but it was scrapped sometime before 1965. Unfortunately, a spacecraft during the follow-up Gemini program suffered a tumble spin, resulting in Command Pilot Neil Armstrong himself having to stabilise the spacecraft without previous training in the MASTIF.

Campers also utilise a device called the 1/6th gravity chair. This chair is used to simulate walking on the lunar surface, as the Moon only has 1/6th the gravity of the Earth, and consists of a chair suspended by springs from the ceiling. While no simulator directly translates to the 1/6th chair, some were analogous to its role at Space Camp. The reduced-gravity aircraft, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” by astronauts, produces low gravity by ascending to a high altitude before pitching down into a steep dive. It was called the “Vomit Comet” due to its propensity for making even the most stoic astronauts queasy.

The 5DF chair is designed to simulate working within a frictionless space environment. It consists of a chair, which stands on several feet with large pads that push out pressurised air, making it float. The chair allows you to get a feel for working in a space where even a slight push will see you floating away in the opposite direction forever. The 5DF’s role was also fulfilled by the “Vomit Comet”, as the aircraft can simulate both low-gravity environments such as the moon, and the microgravity environments present during spacewalks aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The UAT is a 30-foot (nine-metre)-deep water tank at Space Camp, which is combined with scuba equipment to simulate the microgravity environment of space. Campers interact with objects at the bottom of the tank to get a feel for the environment. While the “Vomit Comet” delivered short bursts of low gravity, if NASA ever wants to train astronauts for longer periods, they must use the Neutral Buoyancy Tank. It is a diving pool that, according to NASA, has a volume of 6.2 million gallons (23 million litres) of water. It contains models of several structures, such as the ISS or SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. It serves as a place for astronauts to get used to the systems they will interact with in orbit.

In addition to these simulators, Space Camp also has mission simulators. These are used to simulate Space Shuttle and Orion missions. They included simulators for the spacecraft, the International Space Station, lunar/martian bases, and Mission Control. All have to work in tandem to ensure a successful mission takes place. NASA also trains its astronauts this way, utilising full-scale simulations to train astronauts for the more delicate parts of the mission and to help familiarise them with the craft they are flying. According to NASA, astronauts usually spend around two years training for their mission.

Space Camp's care in faithfully translating these simulators into something that can be utilised on their scale is admirable. By doing so, they allow children to engage with the past in a fun and meaningful way while also building their interest in the future. While there are many other parts of the camp not mentioned here, one can at least get a taste of what camp was like through this.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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