Reading up before the big mission

Many children have ambitious dreams for the careers that they would eventually like to have. Some examples of said professions are doctor, fireman, and athlete. Of course, there is inevitably one other profession that most kids want to be when they grow up. Astronaut. Unfortunately, not only do the astronauts of this world come in short supply, but their job is a difficult test of endurance, both physically and mentally.

And yet, many still persist in these lofty dreams. That’s where space camp comes in. Space camp is a good way to give kids a chance to experience a small part of what being an astronaut is like. I never got the chance to go when I was a child, and I’m completely fine with that. However, when opportunity knocks, I’m certainly going to answer the door.

In the final days of January, I participated in (what essentially boiled down to) space camp for adults. As part of a teambuilding and leadership training, I was able to use my position at the Missile Defense Agency as a part of its Career Development Program to go to space camp. This broke down into two days. Day 1 was a ropes course and day 2 was the astronaut training.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to participate in many ropes courses. As such, I’ve been able to figure out some of the “tricks” of the teambuilding that takes place. Let’s just say experience breeds confidence. Of course, the first task was to break the large group into smaller groups. Standard icebreaker involving pictures taped to backs. All said and done, I ended up in team Charlie. Even though the other teams were Alpha and Bravo, I couldn’t help talking about going to Candy Mountain, the Leopluradon, and the fact that we were on a bridge.

The first activity of the day was the climbing wall. Again: standard stuff. And yet, there was a twist that I hadn’t encountered before. While you were climbing the wall, two others were climbing with you. Not only that, but all three climbers were loosely tethered to each other. The goal was to get to the top of the wall while keeping the tethers intact. Of the sets of three that attempted the wall, mine was the only one of our small group to make it to the top as a complete team. High fives and other congratulatory actions were well due indeed. Oh, did I mention that it was 40° outside? Yeah, it was cold. Yet another factor that made the day an adventure.

Next up was what I would call “Lumberjack Ninja”. The goal was to use metal pegs to climb to the top of a 40 foot pole and jump off. Easy enough, except heights can sometimes be an issue for me. Fortunately, the prior experience with ropes courses had ingrained in my brain the safety of the rope system, which definitely helped on the last few steps to the top of the pole. Once on top, I made a ninja pose, which really felt appropriate, considering where I was standing. Turning around (which is a difficult task when the pole sways with your movement), I leapt off the pole and fist-bumped the rope I was supposed to hit. I think the “rope hitting” part of the challenge was to make sure that you were far enough away from the pole so that you could be lowered safely. Of course, I took advantage of the situation to practice my best “Peter Pan” poses while I was lowered back down to the safety of the ground.

The last event of the day was the low ropes course. Nothing particularly special here, but it did enforce communication skills. With day 1 in the bag, I was looking forward to day 2. The end of day 1 consisted of a guided tour of the rest of the Space and Rocket Center, which was nice considering the last time I had been there, the guiding was left to the individual. Part of the reason I really liked this training, apart from the astronaut simulations, was the fact that we had many different teams that we had to work with. There’s no better way to become acquainted with your coworkers, than with a harmless assignment like a shuttle mission.

To start the second day off, our teams had to design our mission patches. I was a part of the space shuttle Atlantis, so of course I had the perfect slogan up my sleeve. “Let’s Get Kraken!” was proudly emblazoned at the top of our patch, which is only appropriate, considering the name of our shuttle. Once again, I found that my improvisational skills came in handy when we had to present our patch design in a clever manner. We decided upon the “evening news” method, and I was the head anchor to provide the explanation.

After an initial run-through of the mission on both flight control and shuttle sides, we made our way to what I would call the “simulation room”. This was a hangar-like building that housed a lot of equipment to simulate different conditions that astronauts might encounter. The first simulation I did was the “moon walk”, where springs reduced your “weight” to give the sensation of walking on the moon. A lot more difficult than it looks, mainly because a lot of the force that goes into walking isn’t put into going forward, but (apparently) into going up. The next simulation was meant to simulate microgravity, and it was pretty neat, considering I was essentially sitting in a mini-hovercraft. Newton’s laws definitely become apparent when there’s no friction to hold you back. Lastly, I went on the gyroscopic tumble simulator. This is the one that spins you around in every direction. Afterwards, I was reminded that I do actually get seasick, and that I probably wouldn’t make a good astronaut if this was part of the standard training. Well, that and the fact that I’m 6’1”.

By far the best part of the last day was the actual mission. Not only did we have blue flight suits (which I ended up buying), but we had tasks that were performed in a simulated shuttle environment. I was fortunate enough to be one of the Mission Specialists for the mission, which meant that I would be doing a spacewalk to assemble a structure for a satellite. This mission was replete with all the gear that would give the full experience. This included headsets, the bubble helmet, and various other accoutrement needed for a simulated spacewalk.

My only issue with the spacewalk has to do with the microgravity simulator. In order to give the feeling that you’re not being pulled down by gravity, you have to counter that force with a counterweight. Unfortunately, the compensation is perhaps a little more than the gravity pulling me to earth. Sitting in the chair for the spacewalk felt like being continually kicked in the crotch, because it kept pulling me up, when I wanted to just stay put. Of course, I can understand that there are certain limitations of trying to simulate a minimal gravity environment, but I kept fighting it instead of the alternative, which was to lose control. Add on top of everything trying to build a structure out of nodes and rods that were a little bit too big to really fit together properly, I definitely had my workout for the day.

Another observation I made about the mission in general was the critical thinking experience that many of us had. We were all college graduates, and many of us had engineering backgrounds, so the mission certainly did seem to go smoothly. There are a lot of checklists to work through, anomalies to solve, and switches to flip, and it was interesting to see how we were so well adept to these tasks already. Plus, I think most of us were old enough to really enjoy it.

The training concluded with a speech by retired astronaut Robert C. Springer. All said and done, it was an excellent 2 days and I wouldn’t trade them for anything else. Heck, I’d do it again. So in conclusion: yes. I have been to space camp. I just had to wait until I was 25.


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