When I was in college, I secured a job as a camp counselor at United States Space Camp at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. I grew up the kid of an astronaut and my father had done many speaking events at the museum in Huntsville that also included presenting to Space Camp attendees over the years. His work at the Space and Rocket Center was the first I heard about this amazing place. In my mind's eye, it sounded like a cross between a military academy and an amusement park - just the sort of place I might have designed on a scrap of paper in my nerdy (and wonderful) youth.
By 1987, the first year I was a counselor at Space Camp, I was in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Notre Dame and still longed to be a fighter pilot. A job at Space Camp seemed like a fantastic way to spend a summer. I eagerly applied for a job and recognize now how lucky I was to land a position in Huntsville. I’m sure such jobs were coveted and recognize that I had an “in” that helped increase my odds significantly. I hope I did well in the job ... I certainly relished it given my own love of aviation and spaceflight.
My Dad at Space Camp back when he had hair. (Photo credit: Space Camp)
In looking back on those days and now with grown children of my own, I realize how important Space Camp is to the country. There are few places that do as good a job of blending science, engineering, and a sense of wonder and exploration into a single experience for both the young and the more “mature.” There are also few places that bring kids together at such a young age from various parts of the world and show them the value of cooperation with others different from themselves - and do it under simulated stressful situations. At both Space Camp one summer and Aviation Challenge the next, I saw how introducing kids to stressors and asking them to remain calm and perform in spite of those distractions made each of them - to a person - better. Of course those stressors were not really life and death, but in the mind of a child, they might as well have been. And in a world where we seem to increasingly (and often unhealthily) try and protect our children from any stress, it’s one man’s opinion that experiences like those at Space Camp and Aviation Challenge are far too infrequent for most kids.
The camp attendees weren’t the only part of the job that made the experience so wonderful. I got to work with other counselors that became close friends. One of those friends became my brother-in-law. He married my sister after meeting her while she was a counselor at Space Camp as well. I’ll never forget sharing a room with him in the original “bubble” building, a dome shaped, temporary building in a field where mice sometimes infiltrated our room. He woke up one day to see a rodent sitting on his chest and freaked out. The next day, he had elevated his bed on cinder blocks and placed a lamp underneath it that I swear he had confiscated from launchpad 39A at KSC. It had the intensity of one of those Xenon bulbs NASA illuminated the shuttle with at night. I never understood this approach to solving the problem … sure, there were no mice coming into a room lit up with the intensity of a thousand suns, but we weren't getting any sleep either!
Photo Credit: Space Camp
Later, I lived in the new “habitation module” which was like being a resident assistant in a futuristic college dormitory. I loved living among the kids and seeing the passion they had for science and exploration. I also loved to tease them. When we’d take the campers to see the Imax film The Dream is Alive, I’d sit in the third or fourth row from the bottom, rather than with many of the other counselors who claimed the first row. Midway through the film, there is a scene of a shuttle crew (my Dad’s STS-41D crew it turns out) simulating an emergency evacuation from the launchpad which, in real life anyway, would culminate with them hopping into large baskets and sliding down wires strung from the gantry to a bunker situated several hundred yards away. While the crew didn’t really slide down the wires during their exercise, the Imax film crew put one of their cameras in the basket and recorded the descent to the bunker. For somebody watching the large-format film, the point of view really gave a sense of accelerating motion as the basket increased speed until it crashed into a safety net with a loud thud. When that thud shot from the 1.21 jigawatt speakers behind the Imax screen, I’d simultaneously bash the back of the seat in front of me, sending the junior astronaut sitting there through the roof. That never got old…
When I think back on those participants, I feel a sense of pride and hope for our country that is particularly buoyant at times like these when every newsflash seems - even by the “if it bleeds it leads” standard of the media - to be unrelentingly depressing. The spirit of curiosity that space exploration both needs and feeds is one that is so critical to having a healthy and functioning economy and democracy. It is something my father instilled in me and which I write about extensively in The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle. In fact, if I could snap my fingers and make every human have one trait this would be it: the need to know why, the need to look around the next bend, to summit the next peak, and to get to the next planet. Asking questions and searching for answers by applying critical reasoning is the skill that matters most. Unfortunately, so many don’t have it. Space Camp, in its own small way, sets younger human beings on a path to thinking in just such a way.
I know the COVID pandemic has hurt the U.S. Space and Rocket Center greatly. I hope that it survives this period and comes back stronger than ever before. Both the country and the world need magical places like Space Camp. That was driven home this past week by the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule and two astronauts on top. That blastoff was not just a triumph for SpaceX and America. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it was the triumph of hope in an era of despair. And it was a triumph made possible, I’m sure, by the work of many who set foot on the campus of the Space and Rocket Center and nurtured a dream in their youth … a dream that comes true every time the clock hits T-minus zero.
Patrick Mullane is the Author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Son in the Glorious 80s, a coming-of-age humorous memoir.