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Geek Out

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Apr 5th, 2016
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Summer camps aren’t just for the outdoorsy. Kids who like science and technology have a place to go, too, and it’s not as far away as parents might think. Inspire your child to reach for the stars at Space Camp. This gateway to imagination is little more than a car ride away.

by Michael DeVault

It’s 90 sweltering degrees, and with a relative humidity nearing 80 percent, people are seeking shade anywhere they can find it. For one group, gathered in fluorescent yellow shirts, relief comes courtesy of a Saturn 1-b rocket standing in the center of a paved courtyard in the Rocket Garden.

The rocket rises above them for more than ten stories, and the funnels of the massive machine’s engines lend a peculiar echo to the orientation talk being delivered by a camp counselor. A full-size mockup of the Saturn 1-b’s younger sibling, the Saturn V, dwarfs the rocket, soaring more than 30 stories over the verdant Alabama landscape surrounding Huntsville. If rockets and Alabama seem like an odd pairing, you can thank a group of German rocket scientists who settled the area after World War II and singlehandedly created Rocket City U.S.A.

“Most people think of Alabama as cotton fields, and that’s what it was before Wernher von Braun came here,” said Margie Phillips, public relations manager for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The region’s topography reminded the scientists of their Bavarian homeland, so von Braun and his colleagues colonized this remote corner of Alabama on behalf of a fledging U.S. rocketry program. Eventually, their efforts gave rise to NASA. In a very real way, the rockets in the center’s Rocket Garden grew up from the same Alabama dirt as the cotton fields they replaced. Operated by the state of Alabama, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is the state-funded, public facility that serves as the official visitor’s center for the Marshall Space Flight Center. It also serves a second and perhaps more critical role: it’s the home of U.S. Space Camp, the nation’s premier STEM camp for aspiring astronauts and scientists.

It seems parents and students just can’t escape that tiny, four-letter word that has become all the rage in education today. No matter where you look in the world of education, STEM is everywhere, and if you’re the parent of a school aged kid, chances are you’ve encountered the STEM problem. Everyone tells you your kids need more STEM exposure, but you’re just not sure where they can get it.

The acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and these fields of study build just the kinds of skills colleges and employers are looking for. Children seem to eat it up, too, especially enjoying their time with computers and robotics. Schools are offering additional courses in STEM, and many school systems have undertaken major construction projects to provide them with state-of-the-art spaces in which to consolidate the STEM programs at their schools.

But the school year ends in May, and from the point students go home until classes start again in August, the STEM-minded parent is left to fret over how they can continue to encourage focus in this high-demand field. If your kid spends more time with a computer than with a catcher’s mitt, a summer in Huntsville may be just what you’ve been looking for.

“Whether they end up in the space program or not, our students go on to bigger and better things,” Phillips said. “The camping experience builds teamwork and leadership.”

The Space and Rocket Center offers three different camps for the STEM-minded, with each camp divided into age groups. There’s the site’s most famous camp, Space Camp, an aviation camp called Aviation Challenge, and a new camp focused on advanced work in robotics.

The campers are divided into teams of 16 and paired with a crew leader, a highly trained and motivational guide who will help steer their team, or crew, through the week’s activities. Each camper is assigned a role based on the team’s needs and the particular camper’s interests. Campers are then presented with a series of tasks and activities they’ll complete in order to graduate at the end of the week. For the robotics camp, for example, they might be presented with a particular problem to solve using a robot.

“They start off in teams, and for each team member, they work off of strengths,” Phillips said. Campers will design the robot and, working with the tools and materials on hand, build their robot. At the end of the week, they will present their creation for assessment. Robotics camp activities begin simply, with students working on Lego robot kids. By week’s end, though, they’ll have moved up to increasingly advanced and complex machines. Response to the robotics camp has been positive. “This program is growing quickly.”

Campers collaborate to solve a series of challenges for air, land and sea robots, and they work together to design and build their team’s solutions from the chassis up. After building the robot, they learn how to program their design to perform the tasks, including learning binary–the most basic of machine languages for programing. That students are working to build real robots utilizing actual computer programming underscores the kinds of skills that campers are learning.

For Space Camp Robotics, the center offers activities for ages 9-11, roughly grades 4-6. The Robotics Academy offers a more advanced curriculum for ages 12-14, accepting students up to the 9th Grade. In Robotics Academy, campers learn to fly quadcopters, satellite communications and electronic sensor arrays. From the moment campers arrive until graduation at the end of the week, they’ll be busy. “They have a full day of missions, teambuilding activities and having fun. It’s not all work. There’s a lot of play built in there, too,” Phillips said.

The Space and Rocket Center’s aviation camps are similarly divided, providing campers with ever-increasing levels of advanced aviation-related activities. As with the robotics camps and Space Camp itself, Aviation Challenge is divided among age groups, or Mach levels, with the youngest campers between 9-11.

A second level, Mach II, spans ages 12-14, and the final age group, designation Mach III, carries students through their senior years.

As part of the Aviation Challenge, campers age 9-11 work to master the basics of flight with a host of hands-on activities. They test patrolling, teamwork and outdoor training in a SEAL operation.

Additionally, campers in all levels explore flight from the controls of a state-of-the-art F-18 Super Hornet simulator. Working in teams, the campers build missions, fly the missions and complete tasks in mission support.

Beginning at Mach II, complexity of the challenges increase. So, too, does the intensity of the training. At Mach II, campers get their first taste of G-Force training with the military-grade centrifuge. Skilled professionals also provide instruction in land and water survival. By the time students reach the Mach III level, missions are run almost completely by the campers, which requires adept thinking and maneuverability in all three axes of motion. Field training focuses on discipline and attention to detail. And, for an added thrill, Mach III campers experience simulated parachute water landings on the camp’s zipline, which at 300 feet provides campers with a lifetime memory.

At the heart of the Space and Rocket Center’s activities, though, is the camp that made it famous: Space Camp. Designed around concurrent mission activities at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Space Camp provides campers of all ages and skill levels the kinds of real-world, hands-on NASA training that astronauts experience.

For the Space Camp’s introductory level, campers up to age 11 experience the Multi-Axis Trainer, microgravity chair and the Five Degrees of Freedom Chair. These are the same tools that were made famous in the 1989 film, SpaceCamp. Additionally, campers at this level will build and launch model rockets and take in movies in the facility’s two state-of-the-art cinemas, including the SpaceDome IMAX theatre.

Space Academy begins at age 12, and in addition to the activities outlined for campers from the Space Camp, academy attendees will experience the thrill of crewing manned simulated space missions to the Space Station and beyond. In keeping with the Space Camp tradition, the center designs new missions based on NASA’s current and future needs.

“We are always looking toward the future, just like NASA,” said Phillips. In keeping with that vision, Space Camp plans to introduce a manned mission to Mars later this year. Additionally, the center includes real-time simulated mission controls for a host of payload activities aboard the International Space Station and other rocket launches. Marshall, after all, is the home of payload control. It’s only fitting that Space Campers experience those efforts hands-on.

Campers in all three camps–Space Camp, Aviation Challenge and Robotics Academy–will spend time with NASA-trained scientists, touring the center’s more than 1,000 space-related artifacts. They’ll view real Gemini and Apollo capsules, including the Apollo 16 crew return module, which has been preserved in the museum alongside one of the largest segments of moon rock on display.

Many of the museum docents are volunteers who either work at Marshall or have retired from the space program. Phillips said the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is one of the few places visitors get this hands-on with the space program, and the docents are a big part of that experience. “They talk to our guests and students about their involvement, the things they’ve built and invented,” Phillips said. “Just the pride they have behind the work they did is so evident.”

It’s hard to escape the influence the space program has had on the Huntsville area. Driving into the Space and Rocket Center, travelers are greeted for more than three miles by the sight of the Saturn V rocket towering above the facility. Other rockets on hand include vehicles from the Mercury and Gemini missions, military ordinance rockets and missiles, and even a model of the V-2 rocket that started it all.

But the showpiece of the museum is housed in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Housed alongside the crew capsule from Apollo and Gemini, near the moon rocks and displays of Mars missions, is a full-size, authentic Saturn V rocket–all three stages, suspended from the roof, which provides visitors with a unique view of the nation’s largest flying machine.

No matter where you look, you’re bound to find inspiration to head to the heavens. And with the help of Space Camp, you just may one day get there. But even for those kids who never pursue a career in space, the camp offers many worthwhile and fun activities. An added benefit is the one-on-one time with real American heros, the astronauts who fly the missions.

Every week of the year, an astronaut is on hand to dine with the students, visit their missions and give talks. So in a very real way, Space Camp is an active part of the space program, which adds to the campers’ experiences and memories. It’s one thing to read about and study astronauts. It’s another thing all together to spend time with one.

“The biggest benefit is the experience,” Phillips said. At Space Camp, space is an active, living thing. And that’s the core of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s mission. “For so many people, when they hear of NASA and the space program, they put it in the past.” But here, space isn’t in the past – it’s now and the future.

Building on the “mission” mode of instruction, students are housed in habitats in groups composed of individuals with similar interests. Pods of up to 7 and communal living in groups of up to 20 are offered in well-staffed, supervised and secure housing facilities. From the moment the campers arrive until their parents pick them up, they’re under the watchful eyes of skilled, caring personnel.

And get this, Mom and Dad. Space Camp isn’t just for the kids. With a series of adult space camps and family camps, you can open up this experience for the whole family. That’s just what an engineer from New Jersey was doing on this particular, balmy Alabama day in early spring. Her name is Seyhun, and she’s come to the camp to spend time with her nieces and nephews. The reason she chose Space Camp? It’s simple, Seyhun said.

“I think this is a great opportunity for kids. It gives them a passion for all this, to see and learn,” she said.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has been at the forefront of camping experiences for summer campers since its founding. Parents rest assured knowing their children are in good hands. From a world-class educational experience to a comfortable, safe and positive community, the Space and Rocket Center is there. Even restricted diets are accommodated.

The commissary offers a number of food choices, and fresh fruit is always available. Phillips also notes that the camp is a peanut-free facility. “If you have special needs, just let us know, and our dietitians will accommodate those needs,” she said.

Space Camp is unlike any experience your camper is likely to find anywhere else. From the earth to the stars, they’ll find friendship, edification and inspiration. And with packages starting at just $599, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s camps are affordable.

For more information about the camps offered by the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, visit www.spacecamp.com. Or call: (800) 637-7223.