In the summer of 1986, I spent a week at Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. Not only that, but in our final mission, I crashed our Space Shuttle.
I remember watching the very first Space Shuttle launch ever, in April 1981. We were sitting on the floor in the hallway of my school, gathered around a little TV that had been brought out for the purpose. It was amazing, the way the four-piece futureship—the Columbia with its then-all-white fuel tank and boosters—ripped through the sky, rotating and tilting a bit towards the earth as it reached escape velocity, as if to ensure all spectators would get sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate.
For five years, the Shuttle was the thing, and every kid worshiped it. By 1986, my friend Clint and I had finally ditched plans to become doctors like our dads, and were firmly set on joining the astronaut program when we were old enough. (This is before we decided to be rock musicians, which is what Clint actually is.) Space Camp had been started at Huntsville's US Space and Rocket Center in 1982, and was picking up a rep as a healthy, educational kids summer activity, so it wasn't hard for Clint and I to convince our parents to sign us up.
But before we made it to Space Camp, something happened that made a lot of kids think twice about becoming astronauts.
On January 28th, everyone at my school was gathered around a TV again, this time in the gymnasium. The Space Shuttle Challenger was about to send a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, into space, so it was a big deal. At the end of the countdown, we watched as the whole launch system lifted off of the gantry, until a little over a minute into the flight, when something went horribly wrong. The Challenger broke apart, exploding in all different directions in a nasty swirl of hot smoke. I don't remember if anyone cried, but I do remember the feeling of utter emptiness, helplessness, in my gut as I watched.
We coped with our grief through the spring, with jokes like "What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts" and "How do you know Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? They found her head and shoulders on the beach." Every kid lamented out loud that if they were going to have to pick a teacher to go on that particular ill-fated mission, why didn't they pick mine. The humor was just a stage of mourning; we all loved our Space Shuttle. But the tragedy, and the fact that the Shuttle was grounded until further notice, made it a strange time to want to go to Space Camp.
It was also a strange time to release a film about Space Camp—and accidental shuttle launches—but that summer, before Clint and I arrived in Huntsville, that movie starring Lea Thompson and a young Joaquin Phoenix came out. We all saw it. Much of it was shot on the campus, though somehow, through movie magic, Huntsville became a suburb of Cape Canaveral. So when we got there, we knew sorta what to expect.
After bidding goodbye to our parents for the week, we were divided into groups, named after astral bodies, and issued visors. My team was the Sun—we had orange visors, and in true nerd form, referred to ourselves the Solarians. There were like eight of us, Clint and me, plus these cool guys from South Carolina named Sean and Comer (seriously, how can you not be cool with a name like "Comer"?), a couple of other geeks and two girls—bookworm types but hey, they still counted. We went to classes together: NASA trivia on Apple IIe's with monochrome monitors, piece-by-piece walkthroughs of Mercury and Apollo capsules, demonstrations of rocket engines, even a spacesuit try-on.
In Space Camp: The Movie, there's a piece of equipment made up of three rings attached to each other at different points, so that the human body in the middle could be spun in every direction. In the movie, it's controlled with a stick, and whoever can use that stick to stabilize the machine technically has the skill to right a spacecraft that's tumbling into the earth's atmosphere during re-entry. Remember that thing? Well, it was 89% bullshit. The device existed, and a lucky few (I'm thinking the older kids) got to be strapped into it, but it's just an orientation trainer, and has no stick, and can't be controlled, except by spotters who spin it around manually.
The pool was for drills. The older kids in "Space Academy" got to do full spacewalk drills under water, like real astronauts do, with suits and everything. We youngins got some basic zero-buoyancy training. The most fun we had was emergency drills—a low-budget re-enactment of the scene where Gus Grissom is pulled out of the water in The Right Stuff.
Looking back, Space Camp was largely an opportunity for the US Space and Rocket Center to sell a bunch of crap (t-shirts, pins, flight suits, hats) and promote its more edutaining rides. The best by far was the centrifuge, that zoetrope-shaped spinning room whose floor would fall out once centrifugal force had successfully usurped gravity as the main force holding you to a surface.
There was an IMAX theater, and we were there every night, seeing The Dream Is Alive, the greatest Shuttle film ever (I think Christa McAuliffe and the other doomed astronauts are shown training in that movie), and a bunch of others, including some science stuff in 3D. It was a little bit like spending a week living at a museum—we even ate in the same cafeteria that visitors did. We lived on freeze-dried icecream that we bought from the concession stand, and one night we were fed an entire meal of freeze-dried or reconstituted foods. I remember the peas, preferable dry, but not much else.
Our counselor was a big handsome fighter pilot named Ty or something, who told us more than once that he was a) a graduate of Top Gun and b) that he'd hung out with Lea Thompson when they shot the movie. Because of this double cred, we obeyed everything he said, and adhered to the lights out.
The focal point of the week at Space Camp was the shuttle mission, but even there, like in the pool, the younger kids got screwed. Our "shuttle" was this half-assed wooden play set, more or less the size of a shuttle, with a ladder that carried you from the flight deck to the crew deck, and an "airlock" that led to the cargo bay. Up top there were screens switches, but mostly they were simple PC screens to show wireframe flight-simulator type visuals, and switches leading to little lightbulbs and not much else. Down below, we had computer screens, and we had jacks for the headset intercom, and not much else. It was good enough for make-believe, but the Space Academy kids had a real frickin' shuttle.
We weren't even allowed in it. It was a shuttle mockup that was, I think, used by the astronauts themselves, complete with all the same hardware. Everything about it was 100X more real than our plywood construct, and every glance we stole at it was one of jealousy. It was featured in every brochure on the camp, apparently without fine print that you had to be this old—or maybe this tall—to see its insides. Crashing that thing would be like crashing the shuttle for real, dangerous and scary and expensive. Good thing I only crashed the POS junior edition.
Yep. When we were assigned roles, I didn't get any of the good gigs: One of the girls, Cathy I think her name was, got a freakin' space walk. Either Sean or Comer got to be the pilot (naturally), Clint I think was somewhere on the flight deck too. Me? I was shoved down in the crew deck with a couple of paste-eaters, "mission specialists" with nothing to do but report on fake experiments—probably involving mice or plants germinating or something. Maybe it was out of resentment, then, that I caused the whole mission to fail, epically.
Remember I said we learned trivia on Apple IIe's? Well, I guess I didn't learn enough, which is ironic, cuz I'm usually an ace at Trivial Pursuit. The thing about our make-believe mission was that it wasn't sophisticated enough to be a true flight sim—instead, our counselors told us what was going on, and hit us with multiple-choice decisions on the computer screens—kind of a realtime choose-your-own-adventure—that would guide our craft safely home or into flaming oblivion.
We'd made it through the whole mission and were about to re-enter when our window of opportunity somehow closed, and we needed to pick a new landing site. The multiple choice options included White Plains and White Sands. White Plains. White Sands. They sound similar, right? I mean, I grew up in Indiana, so they were equally distant from my geographic frame of reference, and I was the product of the American education system, so I probably didn't even have a geographic frame of reference. I suggested that we go to White Plains. Stressed it, over the weak protests of my teammates. I was damn sure. I reasoned with them over the intercom: It was a plain, and if we were in trouble, hell, we'd at least be able to put this sucker down on flat land.
I was wrong. White Plains, being a densely populated NYC suburb, is not a good place to land the Space Shuttle. Not only that, it's in the wrong direction, if you miss your window over Florida. White Sands, New Mexico, all you Yeager fans surely know, is a fine place to crash land just about anything.
It was a fun week, Space Camp, but needless to say, I never went back. And I never became an astronaut. [Space Camp]