Landing a space shuttle is hard. It is especially hard when the laminated checklist, complete with instructions on which buttons to press and which phrases to say when the ticking clock on the dashboard reads certain times, says to refer to the landing cue cards. There are no landing cue cards.
This is my second time at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and my second time as commander, which makes me in charge of the entire orbiter, a simulator modeled after the space shuttle Endeavor. The orbiter is one of the many buildings in the mission room, a large area with cement floors and a wall full of light bulbs on a background of navy, creating the appearance of stars. The mission room at Space Camp is the coolest room in the entire multiverse.
Missions are the highlight of Space Camp, a chance for kids all around the world to come to Huntsville, Alabama and learn about space exploration at the US Space and Rocket Center. In the simulator, the blue walls and ceiling full of switches, buttons, and abbreviations I don’t understand make me feel like I am in a real shuttle, executing tasks to further the world’s understanding of outer space. As a kid, this is the closest to being a real astronaut I can get, though I when I am older I hope to have a career in space travel.
One of the most important jobs of a commander is landing the orbiter, the part of the shuttle where the crew is. I am not sure how real space shuttle commanders managed to land the orbiter on top of a plane, while the plane was flying. For them the experience was probably not exchanging frantic, puzzled looks with the pilot, Joseph, and demanding the CapCom in mission control tell them how to land.
“Ally, where are the landing cue cards?” I ask into my headset.
Her reply crackles in my ears. “I don’t think there are any.”
Joseph is a boy from Pennsylvania, which is also where I live at the time. Joseph and I look at each other, eyes wide. The mission specialists behind us also seem worried as they buckle themselves into their cushioned seats.
I ask, “Then, how do I land this thing?”
After a long moment where I can faintly hear Ally talking to the crew trainer in mission control, Ally says, “I’m not sure.”
And so Joseph and I stare at the joystick in front of me as the image of the runway on the “window”--a few computer screens--comes closer and closer until we collide with it. Theoretically, Joseph, the two mission specialists, and I die, though in my defense twelve year-olds probably should not be trusted to land a spaceship.
My crew is not too upset that we crashed; having a completely successful mission is not the ultimate goal. Our first priority is working as a team, helping each other and communicating. The closeness of the teams is one of my favorite parts of Space Camp. It is incredible to me that a group of kids who all love science are thrown together, and by the end of the six days, we become friends who have created inside jokes and had sing-a-longs over the mission headsets and played ridiculous amounts of UNO.
The first time I was commander I was only six years old--one year too young to go to parent-child camp, but they made an exception--and the crew trainer thought it would be funny to put the smallest team member in charge. I am fairly certain this is not how NASA hires astronauts.
In the Mercury Program, the first manned space program--after Russia launched their satellite, Sputnik, and the US launched theirs, which made it four feet off the ground before going “kaputnik”--NASA hired astronauts based on logged hours of flight experience and short stature, allowing them to fit inside the tiny capsule. When NASA picked Alan Shepard to be the first man in space, they probably did not anticipate this American hero would also be the reason NASA would invent their version of disposable diapers.
The story goes--as told to me by a hyper girl named Alyssa who has at this point been to Space Camp eleven times--that Alan Shepard drank a ton of coffee before his mission. There were some unexpected delays, and Shepard had to sit in his capsule for a few hours, begging for someone to let him out so that he could pee. They let him pee, but they did not let him out of the capsule. NASA learned their lesson, and diapers became compulsory for astronauts.
In the serious, life-or-death situation of putting the first American in space, said American wet himself. That incongruity reminds me of Space Camp, which has aspects of a fun summer camp as well as times when kids “risk their lives” in outer space. In the program for high schoolers, crew trainers can even choose to kill off kids in a variety of painful ways, and the crews have to revive the person, while the mission clock is counting down all of the other tasks they have to do.
As campers get older, the stakes of the missions get higher, but they never reach the serious side of space travel on which real astronauts and mission controls operate. To me missions have always been fun, but to crews in NASA, they are a serious situation for which people train over and over until the chance of danger is as minimal as possible.
Alyssa tells a lot of stories. She is in my group for the activity where we build space suit arms out of PVC pipes and tinfoil. When we are finished, we are called up to the front of the classroom to give an explanation of how our arm, a couple rings of pipe around a glove, works.
“Can I be the one who talks?” Alyssa asks in her Louisiana accent as she bounces up and down.
The rest of my group and I shrug our agreement. Then, Alyssa launches into an elaborate monologue about how tiny, winged horses live inside the arm and fly back and forth to keep the wearer warm. It is a pretty clever monologue, one that makes my entire team burst into laughter.
An Australian boy named Chael raises his hand to ask a question. “How do the ponies get fed?”
Alyssa points to a ring of PVC pipe. “The astronaut deposits food in here.”
“How do the ponies go to the bathroom?”
“What happens when the ponies get tired?”
“What happens when the ponies die?”
More questions come, and Alyssa answers them all without hesitation. The pictures of my group and I laughing hysterically still live in a photo album atop my bookshelf across from my bunk bed, which is shaped like a space shuttle.
While I do not believe either Russians or Americans employ the use of ponies in their space suits, they do have different ideas on designs. While American space suits take hours and multiple people to put on, the Russians can get into theirs in couple of minutes. This is because NASA’s suits are intricate with a bunch of separate pieces. Russia’s unzip to allow the cosmonaut to climb in and then rezip. The cosmonauts cannot, however, go to the bathroom in theirs, so I suppose there are some trade-offs.
There are teams working on new, lighter space suit designs, but it seems like it is going to be a while before those are implemented. First, they have to be tested in a variety of different ways. Space programs cannot afford to take chances with people’s life support systems.
At Space Camp during missions, people often lift their space suit helmet visors so they can more easily communicate with other people and because it’s hot inside those things. Opening a helmet is maybe not advisable to real astronauts.
The stage in the Discovery Theater at Space Camp is a model of a part of the International Space Station. Inside are a multitude of buttons, a working microwave, and a toilet diagramming the way astronauts go to the bathroom in space. When I am twelve years old, my team, team Atlas, sits in the darkened audience listening to a crew trainer give a presentation on Russian space history.
In school I had learned all about how the United States had won the space race because they had made it to the moon. As a girl who had memorized all the names of the planets by the time she was four and convinced the people at Space Camp when I was six that I was smart enough to go to parent-child camp a year too young, I always felt a sense of pride that my country was superior at space travel. I was amazed that humans had reached the glowing dots that turned the dark mass of sky into a pointillism painting of light, and it was the United States who beat all the other countries. It is not until this presentation that I realize how wrong my teachers were.
Americans were the first ones to land on the moon, but the Russians had the first satellite; first animal in space, a dog named Laika; first man in space, Yuri Gagarin; and first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. Not only did the Russians achieve goals first, but they also do almost every aspect of space travel better. Their rockets are better, their engines are better, and less cosmonauts have died as a result of the space program than astronauts have.
The Russians had a woman in space in their first manned program, while it took Americans four programs until they hired women to be astronauts. Because that’s fair.
When I was I younger, I didn’t think very much about how there were more men involved in space exploration than women. Space was simply awe-inspiring: something to be made into pop-up books and puzzles and dioramas. I went to the local planetarium as much as I could, and I still get excited when I think of the time I glimpsed Saturn through a huge telescope at an astronomy club field trip.
Space has always been an important part of my life, and now that I am older, I recognize the importance of being a girl who wants to be involved in space exploration. I am even more determined to make it to outer space and to experience the serious side of space travel.
During my first time at Space Camp, I am in the museum, staring in awe at the model of the Saturn V rocket, lying on its side suspended in the air, when my crew trainer talks about the second American space program, Gemini. My team sits on the cold museum floor, listening.
“It was called the ‘Gemini Program’ because there were two-person capsules as opposed to the Mercury Program where only one astronaut could go into space at a time,” my crew trainer says as he balances on a crutch due to his broken leg. “The goals of the program were to rendezvous and dock with another vehicle, to subject people and equipment to a flight duration of two weeks, and to land on a pre-determined point on the ground. This last goal was the only one NASA did not achieve; instead they had to stick with the water landing they used in Mercury.”
As he talks, I follow along in the book of space history all the trainees receive. I learn that while Gemini met most of its goals, there were a few incidents.
NASA is notoriously superstitious and for good reason. My crew trainer’s favorite astronaut, Gus Grissom, was the second American in space. He was also the unluckiest astronaut in existence. In the Mercury Program during his first spaceflight, Grissom did not heed NASA’s warnings, and he painted a crack on his capsule, naming it after the Liberty Bell. When it came time to land, his capsule door snapped off, causing the vehicle to sink to the bottom of the ocean never to be found. Gus Grissom survived but later died with the rest of Apollo I crew when a simulator caught on fire.
After the first incident with Gus, one would assume other astronauts would not do anything that could tempt fate, but this was not the case. Gemini V was the first mission with a mission patch. One of the two astronauts, Gordon Cooper, designed the patch: a covered wagon with the words “8 Days or Bust” emblazoned underneath. Thinking people would assume the mission were a failure if it didn’t last the full eight days, NASA made him cover up the words. The mission was already jinxed; it only lasted a total of seven days, twenty-two hours, fifty-five minutes, and fourteen seconds.
After all of the training that went into these missions, they still didn’t work out correctly. Sometimes I think it is crazy that people risk their lives to go to space when so many things could go wrong. Real life is not like Space Camp; when people crash the shuttle, they cannot just walk out of the orbiter then listen to their friends tell them how awesome seeing Endeavor nose-dive into the runway looked on the screen in mission control.
The AstroTrek building at Space Camp, a large structure with murals of planets painted on the walls, houses two MMUs, two 1/6 gravity chairs, two chairs that simulate what it feels like to work in space, and three MATs. MAT stands for multi-axis trainer. It is essentially a gyroscope, spinning the participant in a bunch of different directions, but never the same one twice, which results in the person not feeling dizzy.
My second year at camp, I lie on the cement ground, drawing team Atlas’s mission patch design onto a sheet of paper, while my crew trainer straps people into the simulator. The patch is shaped like Saturn with Saturn’s moon Atlas--from which we get our team name--off to the side. The background of the planet is the American flag, and the background of the moon is the Australian flag, representing the two countries of the kids on my team.
I think it is cool that while there have been competitive aspects of space travel, nowadays for the most part countries put aside their differences and collaborate on projects like the International Space Station. In a lot of ways, Space Camp is reflective of the internationality of space travel: The cafeteria serves food from all of the countries that have contributed to the ISS, and kids--like the two Australian boys on my team--come from all around the world.
Next to me the chrome rings of the MAT overlap in different directions as the seat turns upside down and sideways. When it is my turn, I lean back against the seat and clutch the handles. The world around me spins until I am in constant motion, unable to tell which way I am oriented.
My crew trainer asks me questions, while I am turning to make sure that I am okay.
“What’s your favorite color?” she asks.
It is hard to answer with all of the constant motion surrounding me, but I manage to reply, “Turquoise.”
“Do you have any pets?”
“What are their names?”
“Are you having fun?”
When the simulator ends, I am rightside up again. My crew trainer unstraps me, and I jump down onto the floor. I undo the tight high ponytail into which I had to squeeze my curls to prevent it from falling in my face during the ride.
The MAT is a revised version the MASTIF simulator, which had joysticks astronauts used to attempt to gain control of the MASTIF so that it would cease spinning. NASA retired the MASTIF, but the training came in handy during the Gemini Program.
Gemini VIII was the first mission that had a critical in-flight system failure--the only other time being the “successful failure,” Apollo XIII. During Gemini VIII, both Neil Armstrong and David Scott’s first mission, the capsule successfully docked with a vehicle called the Agena. When the vehicles executed a roll maneuver, Scott and Armstrong noticed that they had rolled too far. They manually corrected the rotation, but it rolled too far again. The extra spinning was a result of one of the thrusters being stuck, causing it to fire continuously.
Thinking the Agena was the problem, the astronauts undocked. The capsule started rotating even faster until it reached one revolution per second. Neil Armstrong used the training from the MASTIF to gain control of the capsule. The astronauts’ problem-solving earned them both spots as commanders--and moon-walkers--in the Apollo Program and was the reason NASA chose Neil Armstrong to be the first man on the moon.
It is weird to think about what it would have been like if those astronauts had not survived and the most famous person in American space history had not gotten the chance to land on the moon. Gemini VIII proves why running simulations over and over again is so crucial to the safety of the crews who embark on journeys in the precariousness of space.
When I am thirteen years old, I am CapCom in mission control, which is the abbreviation for “capsule communications.” My job is to communicate with the crew aboard the space shuttle. Going to Space Camp twice before taught me that the CapCom is the best position in mission control: No one else’s headsets can talk to the orbiter. I am in charge of relaying all the information from mission control to the orbiter and vice versa, while the rest of the positions in mission control are isolated, simply reading off a script.
In mission control, kids sit behind a row of computers showing numerical data on the shuttle. There are televisions in the front of the room linked to cameras in the simulators so that mission control can watch what is happening in space.
The chatter from the orbiter is loud in my ears, people searching the ceiling and walls for buttons and reciting lines from their checklists. Someone thought it was a good idea to make the crew of the shuttle all boys. Middle school boys.
“Have you separated from the external tank?” I ask, reading from my script, the lines highlighted blue.
There is no answer.
“Xavier?” I say to the pilot. “You’re supposed to tell me you’ve separated.”
Riley, the commander, says, “We’ve separated. Xavier’s just trying to find a button.”
“Okay, but he needs to remember to say his lines,” I say.
“Roger that,” Riley replies.
Despite the warning, Xavier still doesn’t convey all the information he is supposed to tell me. The orbiter is chaotic with the boys talking over each other. I am the one who has to keep them in line, saying--and sometimes shouting--what they need to do. Though a little annoying, it is fun to be in a position of power.
This mission makes me wonder about what it was like in mission control during Apollo XIII when everyone was desperately trying to rescue the astronauts after oxygen tanks in the command module exploded. The astronauts relocated to the lunar module; however, there were not enough lithium hydroxide canisters to remove carbon dioxide from the air for the four days the return trip was going to take. There were extra canisters in the command module, but they were made by different companies and shaped differently.
Back in mission control, a team of scientists gathered all of the supplies the astronauts had in space and devised a way to get a cube-shaped canister to fit into a cylindrical socket, a massive feat of ingenuity that saved the astronaut’s lives as they returned to Earth. Because the mission did not meet the objective of reaching the moon, but the crew was safe, Apollo XIII is nicknamed “the successful failure.”
I wonder how it felt to be involved in that mission; in space the astronauts were fearing for their lives, and in mission control, people were bearing the responsibility of those astronauts. The pressure the entire team was under must have been staggering.
Sometimes I think it is crazy that when I am older, I want to risk my own life by traveling to outer space. To me the risk is worth it. Going to space--traveling in the middle of worlds, floating where there is no gravity, and being a part of an amazing team--is so incredible that I need to experience it.
For obvious reasons, the incident during Apollo XIII is not quite as bad as the time I am six years old, and my mother is pilot on a shuttle mission and forgets to close the payload bay doors, rocketing our crew into the depths of space where our eyes are sucked out of our heads and into the infinite blackness. One step in the script is carelessly missed, and suddenly, we are floating, dead.
Some missions at Space Camp go better than others. When I am thirteen, I am a Lunar Mission Specialist along with Kate, Fiona, and Jason. This mission takes place some time in the future when NASA has developed a base on the moon.
Sitting in the chrome lunar capsule, high-tech buttons and switches surrounding me, the commander and pilot fly our crew of six to the moon where we hover above the surface. The commander sneezes into the microphone, and it echoes like a clap of thunder in the headsets before all of us burst out laughing, even the crew trainer in mission control.
The simulator ceases vibrating, imitating the roar of the engine, as we dock with the vehicle Altair (which means that some crew trainer attaches a tunnel between the two simulators.) The other mission specialists and I climb through the tunnel, oversized orange flight suits dragging on the metal, and into the vehicle.
Altair is small, without any chairs. It has the customary “window” and buttons on every side.
Kate, a tomboy who always wears the same baseball cap and refuses to take it off, points to the clock on the dashboard. “That’s not the time it says on our checklists.”
The four of us put on our headsets to ask mission control about the time difference.
“CapCom this is LMS 7,” I say. There is no response. “CapCom? Hello?”
Kate adjusts her microphone. “Mission control?”
None of the headsets work.
Fiona, the oldest of all of us, finds a piece of paper with the words “no communications” scrawled across it.
“It must have been from the previous mission,” Jason, a tall Asian boy who really likes fencing and has an incongruous amount of knowledge on the subject of manicures, says, hanging the headset back on the hook. He walks over to the camera and mouths “no communications.”
All of us take turns trying to convey the message to mission control. Eventually, we give up and start dancing in front of the camera instead.
“What are we supposed to do?” Kate asks after we get tired.
We decide to follow the checklists, even though the times do not match. Each of us has our own buttons to push and switches to flip. When we are done, the four of us stand awkwardly, not knowing what to do without the instruction of mission control. Then, we dance some more.
After a while, Jason gets the idea to crawl back into the capsule--even though we theoretically aren’t still attached--and use the headsets there to tell mission control there is a problem.
My crew were not the only ones who acted a little silly on the surface of the moon. During Apollo XIV, Alan Shepard sneaked a golf club onto the vehicle. He then proceeded to drop two golf balls onto the lunar surface and thus became the first and only man to play golf on the moon.
Charles “Turtle” Duke earned his nickname during the Apollo XVI mission. While on the moon, he jumped about four feet into the air. The weight of his gear pulled him down until he was lying flat on his back, giving him the appearance of a turtle.
In the gravity (or lack thereof--⅙ gravity to be exact) of the situation, these astronauts figured out how to have a good time. While the stakes in real life are higher than at Space Camp, so too is the potential to have an amazing adventure. The danger does not completely take away the fun part of being an astronaut.
More technical difficulties on my lunar mission ensue when we finally land Altair and make our way outside the vehicle to a lab called Rising Star. We open one set of doors, close them, and say “poof” so that the door can be “pressurized,” and we enter a white lab through the second set of doors. There are experiments and supplies set up throughout the lab, most of which involve plants.
Two crew trainers help us into our spacesuits, and then the four of us go outside again to perform our EVA.
EVA stands for extravehicular activity and is commonly known as a spacewalk. (NASA really likes acronyms.) EVAs were yet another accomplishment the Russians achieved first. In March of 1965 Alexei Leonov conducted a twelve-minute spacewalk. Four months later, Ed White became the first American to perform an EVA, which lasted twenty-three minutes.
During my EVA, my friends and I fix a building called Aurora. We replace a window then repair the electrical grid inside. When we go inside to await further instructions, Fiona and I discover that our headsets cannot communicate with the OLE in mission control, Riley. So Riley, holding a checklist in one hand and breathing heavily, comes running across the mission floor and into the white building. He relays the instructions, and Fiona and I climb up and down the ladder. Multiple times. Did I mention it’s really hot in those spacesuits?
Usually, during an EVA, a person from mission control does not have to go into space to relay his messages, but this probably was not the only procedure that differed from the ones real astronauts use. Maybe someday I’ll be an astronaut and get to follow the real procedures. Maybe I’ll actually get to walk on the moon or be commander of a mission (hopefully without the crashing part.) Eventually, I might get to be a part of space history and experience all of the hard work that goes into ensuring that the danger to the crew is minimal.
Right now I’m just worried about the next time I’m going to Space Camp with my mother. I hope she doesn’t kill us again.
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