My favorite spot at Space Camp this time was the
Davidson Center for Space Exploration, a new hall built to exhibit the Saturn V. When I was a space camp last with my older son, in 2006, they were still collecting money to restore the rocket. Now you can walk under it, and appreciate all its hugeness, and get some kind of idea of the power required to leave the gravity of Earth.

It’s been a tradition in my family for me and one of our children to go to parent/child space camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Since I went with my two older kids when they were in 3rd and then 4th grade, a trip with my youngest, now in 6th grade, was overdue, and so I booked us to go over New Year’s, which seemed a good time to be traveling south anyway.

I can’t exactly say how the tradition started, or how I found this particular program but it’s been a great way for me to spend one-on-one time with one of my children, which is always a challenge when you have three. Plus it’s a nice way to learn. It also struck me this time that we can’t take it for granted that our kids know about space travel, especially travel to the moon. I grew up with that; I was a little kid when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and I remember my dad’s excitement. But for our kids this is ancient history, as one of the IMAX movies we watched, Magnificent Desolation, addresses very nicely. We do have to teach them about that history, or they have no concept of what it takes to travel to space. These days, Space Shuttle missions seem almost self understood, but they are not, and even they are fading into history as the last space shuttle flew last year.

Simulated Space Shuttle Mission at space camp: the orbiter
crew as seen through the Mission Control monitor

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center exists in Huntsville because that’s where Wernher von Braun and his team were moved to an existing Army base to develop those rockets that eventually took us to the moon. While clearly a highly accomplished scientist, Wernher von Braun is a problematic figure for me because he did work for Hitler and the Wehrmacht (developing the V-2 missiles that were targeted at the Allies) until it became inopportune in May of 1945, at which point he decided it would be better to defect to the Americans than to be captured by the Soviets who were about to overrun the Baltic town of Pennem√ľnde where he was working.

The current Wernher von Braun exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center does not address his to me rather obvious opportunism; it simply begins with his defection (they even display the bicycle that his brother supposedly used to alert the Americans). The exhibit shows him as this great scientist with vision and charisma, which he certainly was, but it would have been an exhibit with greater depth if it had also addressed his problematic past. After all, every hero has his faults.

My son rides the MAT (Multi-Axis-Trainer) at space camp.

So what do you do at space camp except see an exhibit which you could see if you just visited the museum there? We did three simulated Space Shuttle missions, and had different roles each time, with the child taking the lead. First time around, my son was commander, and I was pilot (The amount of buttons one has to find on that flight deck are mind-boggling!). We also got to work as Space Station Scientists, as well as INCO (Integrated Communications Officer) and Mission Scientist (both working in Mission Control in “Houston.”) We were on a great team with other parents and children, and had loads of fun while each of us was trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. At one point, we parents and kids in Mission Control did a rendition of the “Sponge Bob Square Pants” theme while we were waiting for the orbiter crew to get their act together.

We also built rockets and launched them on a bright and balmy afternoon (60F – I knew it was a good idea to travel south in the winter…), and we rode lots of different simulators that astronauts actually used to train for space travel. My favorite is the 1/6 chair, so called because on the Moon you only weigh a sixth of what you weigh on Earth. They strap you into a harness, and you get to bounce around like a baby (see the little video above of my son “walking on the moon”).

And of course we learned a lot of space travel history: early rocketry, the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Sputnik, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects, the Space Shuttle Program, the MIR, the International Space Station. The main idea of space camp is to learn while having fun, and they do a great job at that. We certainly enjoyed ourselves, and learned a lot, even though I must say the 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. schedule was exhausting. But then again, space travel is not for the weak at heart.