Starship enterprise

24th October 1997 at 01:00
In the United States you don't have to be anastronaut to defy gravity. Diane Hofkins goes to Space Camp.

Amalia has set her heart on being an astronaut. "I met an astronaut a few years ago," says the 10-year-old from Schenectady, New York. "He was on the last successful flight of Challenger. He told me what he did in space, how it was really risky, how he could loosen his seatbelt and float in space." Although the astronaut had some funny tales, she appreciated the real thrill of the mission: "This is a life and death risk. When everything seems settled down, something can happen. It's a challenge."

Amalia had been longing to go to "space camp" since the age of seven. Finally, her mother said she was old enough. "When I got here, my mouth dropped. "

US Space Camp, near Cape Canaveral in Florida, is a 10-year-old's heaven. It's a place where children can come to spend a week training as astronauts: experiencing weightlessness, space shuttle missions, eating dry ice cream and dehydrated strawberries, and sleeping in a dormitory that looks like the Starship Enterprise.

An inclusive cost of $675 (around Pounds 420) may seem steep for a five-day programme, but the campers are sure it's worth it. "It's the best," says Kenny, aged 10, from Albany, New York. "I really liked the simulation shuttle, when we launched the rocket, and then the Astronaut Hall of Fame." Brittany, 11, from Washington State, was more impressed by hydroponics - growing plants without soil.

However, Peter, 11, from Staten Island, New York, stresses: "I came here for the education. Not just for the fun."

Undoubtedly, space camp offers both, stimulating a keen interest in science, developing teamwork, and leaving the participants with thrilling memories and new friends. Most campers are American, but British children have attended, and Space Camp can also cater for Spanish speakers. Its literature claims that 93 per cent of those who have attended its three sites in Alabama, Florida and California over the years have said that it inspired them to take more science courses, while 91 per cent took more maths - particularly calculus. Nearly half said it influenced their choice of major subject at university.

Although some school groups come for the five-day space camp package, most of the nine to 12-year-olds who take part come on their own. "It's so good watching the kids get along," says Brian Wright, the press officer. "They're complete and utter strangers when they arrive on Sunday afternoon. By Sunday night, they're buddies."

Building teamwork is one of the main aims of the programme, Wright says, and "outstanding camper" awards are given to those who have helped others the most. "Many kids are brilliant but selfish. No one can work here on their own. You need to be part of a team."

Base camp is rather like a huge studio, with the activities and equipment dotted around it. At the centre is a life-size space capsule, the focus of the popular, hour-long simulated shuttle mission in which every child takes part.

The children are put into teams and, throughout the week, they pass through a series of highly sophisticated simulations. In the space station lab, the children can see how every inch is used to the maximum, how you need a seatbelt in the loo, and how experiments are conducted in space. Then there are the weightlessness simulations. The Five Degrees of Freedom simulator gives the feeling of a space walk, by pivoting and pitching the children in different directions. If a camper wants more of this sort of thing, he or she can try the Multi-Axis Trainer, which sends them tumbling in suspension as you would in a spacecraft.

"You don't get sick as you're spinning around your stomach," explains Wright. "And you don't get dizzy because you're going in one direction."

Finally, children have the opportunity to build a space station at the 0-G (zero gravity) wall, where a special harness gives them the chance to see what it's like to work in the weightlessness of space. "In space, all you need to do is lock the pieces in place. There's no pull of gravity," explains Wright. "It sounds like a piece of cake - but it's hard to do when you're weightless. "

The highlight for many of the children is the space shuttle mission. Budding astronauts in the capsule are in constant contact with a ground control team, which sits in front of a bank of video screens. Each plays a role, such as flight director or mission scientist. Mostly, they follow a script, but a staff member also throws them problems to solve, such as a broken computer.

There are several trips to the Kennedy Space Centre, where campers may be lucky enough to see a real rocket take off, and a visit to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, a tourist attraction attached to Space Camp.

At the end of a long day, the children retire to Habitat, the Space Camp dormitory. This gleaming metal structure, which is intended to feel like a space station, sleeps 300 campers and 30 staff members. Its drinking fountains are labelled hydration stations, the lift is the vertical transport module, and the loos are waste management systems. The broom closet is a maintenance pod and there is also a sick-bay.

Space Camp is not idle at weekends either. There are three-day parent-child camps where "you and your child will share important time together as you explore new things about space". School groups within striking distance of Cape Canaveral come for three-hour "action tours", which allow children to sample some of the activities, or two-night Outer Space Adventures.

Yet Florida's Space Camp is small in comparison with the one in Huntsville, Alabama, which also offers Space Academy for 11 to 13-year-olds, Advanced Space Academy for 13 to 18-year-olds and even a Space Academy for adults, which has a special programme for teachers.

The Alabama Space Camp opened in 1982, and was followed by the Florida camp in 1988. The project was set up by the US Space Camp Foundation and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and is a non-profit foundation, with the goal of supporting space science education in America.

There is no question that Space Camp fires the imaginations of the children who attend. To 10-year-old Lauren, the most amazing thing was: "How people can go up there and live, and come back alive. You think, wow, just going there! You think about what we have done in this century."

US Space Camp Foundation, One Tranquillity Base, Huntsville, Alabama 35805-3399. US Space Camp Florida, 6225 Vectorspace Blvd, Titusville, Florida 32780-8040. Tel: 00 1 407 267 3184; fax: 00 1 407 267 3970

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