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Out of this World

Adult space camp in Huntsville proves to be
an exhilarating and challenging weekend.

We landed the space shuttle with two astronauts still out spacewalking. Most of our rockets nose-dived into a field. Our pilot sent the Enterprise skidding across a river and into a nearby forest.

Space Walk

Above: Simulating a space walk is one of the experiences for campers. Alabama Department of Tourism

Below: The space shuttle Enterprise simulator at the academy.


Still, I’d say Team Challenger’s week at space camp was a terrific success.

I’m not a space geek. I’m old enough to have watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, but it didn’t change my life. I was reasonably good at math and science, but I found the subjects dull.

So when I got the chance to go to the Adult Space Academy® operated by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., it wasn’t the unfulfilled astronaut in me that squealed with joy. It was my inner adrenaline junkie. Here was my shot at a new kind of adventure.

The surprise? I didn’t know how hard space camp was going to be. Or how rich the camaraderie with my fellow astronauts.

Team Challenger

After the logistics — I got my access pass, my bedding, and my royal-blue flight suit — I met the 15 others who would comprise Team Challenger. Science geeks and adventure gluttons young and old, from New Jersey and Seattle and a dozen points in between, we were a diverse group with just one thing in common: We wanted to go to space.

Mission Control, Copy That

Simulated space missions made up the core of our training at space camp. On each of three training sessions, half of our team either climbed aboard the space shuttle Enterprise or boarded the International Space Station to conduct cool science experiments.

A simulated mission control center awaited the earthbound half of our team. Eight monitors lit up like Christmas trees, each labeled with our individual roles: PAYCOM (payload command coordinator) and EVA (extravehicular activity or spacewalking); EECOM (electrical, environmental, and consumables systems engineer) and GNC (guidance, navigation, and control systems engineer). Who knew NASA was so fond of acronyms?

A binder laid out what I should do when the space shuttle developed problems, known in the biz as “anomalies.”

“This is Mission Control to Mission Specialist 1,” I radioed into space. “Position umbilical line in lower right corner of Access Panel A. For RCS engine deactivation, locate Instrument Bay B on PAM control panel. Switch MODE on. Check A, S, D illumination ... ”

These were our conversations, strings of words and letters that meant little to me. And yet they seemed vitally important. Some space campers had been waiting all their lives to repair a satellite by means of a spacewalk. I didn’t want to be the one to spoil the mission, even if it was simulated.

The Space walk

The next day our space duties were switched up. Those who piloted the Enterprise yesterday worked Mission Control today. Those who called instructions to the payload specialist yesterday conducted space experiments today.

And me? I went on a space walk.

It was tough not to giggle as I tugged on the bulky white spacesuit and oversized helmet. Camp trainers steadied me while I stepped into my clunky white boots.

Through the hatch I climbed, from the shuttle’s crew cabin into the cargo bay, where I was tethered and harnessed. And then I was off to repair a damaged satellite.

My spacesuit left me feeling sweaty and clumsy. The shuttle’s pulleys and levers couldn’t really replicate zero gravity and pressing buttons on a fake keypad will never duplicate a space mission. But I got a thrill out of pretending it was all real.

Of Space Spirals

If our space missions formed the meat of our cosmic weekend, the physical simulators were the dessert.

My favorite was the Multi-Axis Trainer (MAT), a gyroscope into which campers strapped their bodies to be spun up and over, end over end. The MAT aims to replicate an uncontrolled capsule cartwheeling through space. Real astronauts learn troubleshooting skills while they tumble, so our trainer, Corey, called out questions for us to answer: What city are you in? What is two plus two? What is your name? Presumably astronauts get harder questions.

Another physical test: the antigravity chair. Strapped into a seat designed to mimic the moon’s gravitational pull (about one sixth of the Earth’s), campers walk forward, shuffle side-to-side, and hop, all while being hoisted upward.

A Long Day’s Work

In between training, missions, and simulations, our 15-hour days were loaded with team-building exercises and an IMAX film.

The final event was graduation. Team Challenger gathered on the stage. Corey handed each of us a certificate of completion. We were space academy graduates. I surprised myself by getting a little choked up.

Afterward, I made my way to the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, a museum jam-packed with memorabilia, such as a rare Saturn V rocket.

“Once you have tasted flight,” Leonardo da Vinci is attributed with writing, “you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

There are 16 Team Challenger members who think Leonardo was right. Even if our space journey was pretend.

Amy S. Eckert is a new contributor from Holland, Mich.

November/December 2016 Issue


The weekend Adult Space Academy® starts at approximately $550 per person. For more information, call (800) 637-7223 or visit

To visit Huntsville, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.




More campy fun


Play ball

For the baseball fan, a week at fantasy camp is a little slice of heaven. Though every club that offers such an experience puts its own spin on it, most will allow participants to suit up with former players to play games, take instruction, and rub elbows with some of the game’s greatest players.

The 2017 fantasy camp for the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla., in January is sold out. A week-long camp will cost around $6,000. A camp held at Busch Stadium in St. Louis also is typically held, but dates for next year were not available. For more information, email

Former Chicago Cubs catcher Randy Hundley runs the fantasy camp for Cubbie fans. Dates for 2017 will be Jan. 22 (opening reception) through 27 in Mesa, Ariz., at the team’s spring training facility. The cost for the week-long camp is $4,600. For more information, email

Air fare is not included in the cost of the camps.



We know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll

If you know someone who misses his or her garage band days and is often caught playing air guitar when they think no one is watching, then a rock camp could be music to their ears.

For more than 20 years, rock tour producer David Fishof has run the Fantasy Rock ‘n’ Roll Camps in Hollywood, Calif. Participants can hone vocal, instrumental, or songwriting skills with rock camp counselors, ask questions of rock stars (headliners who have made appearances include Roger Daltry of The Who, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper), and perform onstage at a top Hollywood music club, including Whisky A Go Go or the House of Blues.

There’s a camp Feb. 16–19 featuring Jerry Cantrell and Mike Inez of Alice in Chains, and Robert and Dean DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots. Packages start at $1,999 and go up to about $6,000. For more information, call (888) 762-2263 or visit


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