NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama is the ultimate bucket list experience for all independent backpackers and gap year travellers, and this is your ultimate guide on how you can have this iconic experience for yourself, train to be an astronaut and get yourself ready for the birth of space tourism!
In the better half of the past twenty years I have ticked off more than my fair share of iconic bucket list experiences on my round the world adventures. I have trekked through the Sahara desert, peeked inside the craters of active volcanoes, climbed Kilimanjaro, seen Everest Base Camp and have even channeled my inner Indiana Jones and found the lost Ark of the Covenant! (Sort of!)
But these all pale into comparison for what – for every space geek and science fiction nerd – has to be the ultimate in experience travel. Space Camp!
Ever since I was a Star Trek and science fiction loving kid, where I watched a film called, surprisingly, Space Camp, I had dreamed of going to astronaut training for myself, fulfilling my Captain Kirk fantasies, pressing all the shiny controls and having a robot named Jinx (which the movie version of NASA of course allows young boys to effectively steal and play with) hack into NASAs computers and blast me off into space.
It’s a simple enough dream, right? But it is one that I never thought I would get to experience for so many obvious reasons. Luckily, as an adult, I learned I could have at least part of that dream come true by attending Space Camp itself, something that up until recently I never knew I could do! Or anyone beyond American children for that matter!
What is Space Camp?
Space Camp is part of a largely American tradition of spending school age children off to various themed camps at various points throughout the year, usually at summer time and usually based on a recreational activity or theme such as art or sport or some academic topic such as maths.
Space Camp is obviously on the educational side of that spectrum, and is run by NASA’s US Space and Rocket Center to educate children and promote STEM fields such as science, maths and engineering, but also to give them a taste of what it is like to train as an actual astronaut and hopefully instill a few ambitions to one day further mankind’s reach into deep space, and with a number of Space Camp graduates going on to work at NASA or be actual astronauts themselves, it seems like they are succeeding.
But contrary to popular belief, Space Camp isn’t just for children. I know! I was genuinely surprised at this myself! Until I was invited to attend I assumed it was just something for children in the U.S, which is why I thought I would never be able to have my own dreams of going there. How wrong I was!
How old do you have to be for Space Camp?
Space Camp obviously has a range of programmes aimed at children between the ages of 7 – 18, and an Advanced Space Academy for college aged teenagers with an expanded curriculum designed more for preparing them for college and careers in STEM fields by taking them through a series of space themed training simulations.
But more important for me, there is also an advanced Space Academy for adults too!
Aimed at grown ups who never got to experience Space Camp as a child but still want to experience what it is like to train as an astronaut, the adult Space Academy gives a condensed but intensive experience that gives everyone the chance to go through some basic astronaut training!
There is also a range of camps for families to attend together too, as well as specific programmes based around aviation, robotics and even cyber security. Basically there is a space camp for every age and everyone, and is a one stop shop for inspiring all ages to engage in and train in a wide variety of STEM fields whilst enjoying the adventure of astronaut training.
Arriving at Space Camp.
The experience of arriving at the US Space and Rocket Center in and of itself is akin to a religious experience for any space geek, and is the perfect primer to get anyone psyched up for astronaut training at Space Camp! Walking through part of the Shuttle Park on arrival I got completely lost in awe seeing the huge Pathfinder orbiter and the T – 38 Supersonic Jet!
But I didn’t have much time to sit in wonder staring at these amazing feats of engineering as our small team was taken through to the training facility for our simulation training.
If we were going to be training like astronauts then the first order would of business would be to look the part, and just like visiting the quartermaster to get our supplied uniform we were each issued our very own flight suit.
In a moment akin to Tony Stark gifting Peter Parker with the Iron Spider Armour, I couldn’t get my suit on fast enough. I felt like a damn superhero! This was when it started to feel real for me. I had been running along on pure excitement and wonder until this point, not quite believing I was actually going to attend Space Camp.
But getting my flight suit on felt real! And I could not have felt more proud of myself!
It is hard to explain the connection, the feeling, you get when you put that suit on for the first time. It makes you feel part of a team, part of a whole, and was an essential component in bonding our small group together, something that anyone who has served in any uniformed services will attest to. Just as importantly, play acting as a space cadet or not, putting the suit on for me was the formal confirmation of a childhood dream and it made me feel like an actual astronaut!
Now I was ready to start my training!
Obviously the training given to genuine astronauts is far more intense and robust, but the Space Camp experience is designed to give people the basic astronaut experience, a modified but realistic glimpse into what it would be like to train to actually go into space!
So all suited up and ready to go, I was eager to get started on my training, and after a short obligatory safety talk we were taken to the Multi Axis Trainer.
The Multi Axis Trainer.
The MAT is a scaled down version of the MASTIF, a Multiple Axis Spin, Space Test Inertia Facility, which was used to condition astronauts in the Mercury programme – NASAs first manned space flight – for the disorientation that would occur in emergency conditions during reentry.
I couldn’t wait to get strapped in, and although in my opinion it didn’t last nearly long enough (apparently the experience was longer than it felt) I loved being spun around as if I was in freefall. The design of the MAT meant that the three dimensional freefall wouldn’t affect my stomach or my inner ear balance, and there was no joystick attached to the trainer so I wasn’t expected to control it myself, I was allowed to just sit back and enjoy the ride, and it was awesome!
All I can remember as I was spun round in every single direction was this overwhelming urge to laugh as I sat back and enjoyed what was essentially pure, unadulterated fun!
But the multi axis trainer was just the start of our small groups astronaut experience, because we all know you can’t go into space without learning how to Moonwalk! I’ll save you from the obligatory bad Michael Jackson jokes, because this was the real deal, and is far more impressive!
The 1/6 Micro Gravity Chair.
Just as the Multi Axis Trainer gave us a glimpse into the best training available in the Mercury programme, now it was time for us to taste what it was like in the Apollo programme, the project that put mankind on the moon! And we did this by strapping into the 1/6 Micro Gravity Chair, the chair used to train astronauts how to walk on the lunar surface.
Named quite simply after the mathematic equation of the moons gravitational pull, which is 1/6 that of the Earth’s, the Micro Gravity Trainer is essentially a huge baby bouncer that is designed to give potential astronauts a realistic idea of what it is like to walk in reduced gravity, and it was simply one of the most joyous experiences ever! I was put through my paces trying a range of different movement techniques over a simulated lunar landscape, but if the multi axis trainer was fun, this was pure unadulterated joy!
And it is here I have to apologise to the awesome trainers at Space Camp, who have the patience of absolute saints for putting up with me grinning like a schoolboy and trying to bounce as high as possible when we should have been going through the extremely serious process of learning specific body movements and steps to make low gravity walking easier. I have no doubt that if I was actually in space I would be floating off to Mars as we speak!
It is a good job then that we were also given a little bit of training on how to operate in the vacuum of space too!
Extra Vehicular Activity.
This was perhaps one of the best parts of the whole experience, and certainly the one that I had been most looking forward to. The space walk! Or to give it it’s technical name, the EVA, or Extra Vehicular Activity.
The aim of this part of the training was to allow us to experience what it would be like to actually go out into space, to don the space suit and head outside of the space ship to perform that critical repair that saves everyone on board like they do in the movies! Or in our case move a box from one part of the ship to the other.
This wasn’t as easy as it sounds though, and after spending a considerable amount of time squeezing my 6″2 frame into suits that are apparently designed for tiny people (which is by the way a three man job, not that I feel offended by that at all) we had to learn very quickly how to use the tools and the equipment that would be needed to perform the various tasks expected of us.
On the ground with no gloves on this was a relatively simple task, but when you are in simulated zero gravity conditions, wearing gloves thicker than oven mittens and in a suit that is hotter than a heatwave in Aruba, it wasn’t easy at all.
This is where NASAs Centennial Challenge Programme comes in, and shows how they are utilising civilian experts in a broader range of disciplines to compliment their own significant scientific skills. It is actually a fashion designer, a textile expert, who won contracts to design and build the next generation of astronaut gloves that are much less cumbersome and allow for much more freedom of movement! Which makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
Being hoisted up toward the mock up of the exterior of the space station was a hell of a lot of fun, but surprisingly harder than I thought! I had to think quick and remember to strap myself to the various points if I didn’t want to drift off into space (by space I mean the vastness of the facility) whilst trying to screw and unscrew various bits of machinery, not to mention get that vital piece of kit over to my partner who was struggling with her ponytail in her face as much as I was with condensation inside my helmet making visibility difficult for both of us!
With a bit of teamwork and a lot of encouragement and instruction, we managed it though! But I think it is safe to say that our training exercise was more Carry On Space Camp than the Right Stuff!
But as fun as all this was, we also had to learn to function as a team on simulated missions that actual astronauts would be on as well, and this is where the simulators came in.
The Space Shuttle Simulator.
My new rank as Mission Specialist was assigned to me as we each took our places in the Space Shuttle simulator, strapping ourselves into our assigned seats and trying very hard not to flip every switch and button on every console.
The Space Shuttle was the only winged, manned spacecraft designed to go into low earth orbit and then land, and it is that aspect of the programme that we were asked to accomplish, with a little help from Mission Control in our ear pieces of course.
The simulator itself was extremely accurate and felt very much of its time, which of course it was. The Space Shuttle is now no longer in use and has made way for the next generation of space flight vehicles, but the plethora of buttons and joystick controls gave a genuine, authentically hands on feel for what it must have been like during the pioneering era of space flight, and made an ageing geek like me feel like a kid again.
After completion of the mission that the shuttle had been sent up into space for, we would obviously need to get back home again. So the ever patient and accommodating Mission Control, who gave me a field promotion to Captain and allowed me to change the shuttle’s name to Enterprise, took each of us through the necessary steps it would take to bring the shuttle back down from orbit and land again, and the pilot, who I’m not sure would have appreciated me calling her Mr Sulu, did an admirable job of not killing us all in a fiery ball of death.
The International Space Station Experience.
Of course training to be an astronaut isn’t all about bouncing up and down in zero gravity and hopping around space pretending to be Captain Kirk! There are actually some serious matters to attend to as well, and a large focus of the Space Camp experience is showing how vital the scientific study that astronauts engage in actually is.
And this is where we were led to a mock up of the International Space Station, and into a room full of equipment and gadgets for our next task. A science experiment.
This activity was kind of a STEM based escape room experience, but with more of a focus on learning rather than escaping, and I could see how Space Camp were engaging their students on all levels and incorporating the science within the activities.
The experiments themselves were simple enough and were tailored to specific age and skill levels, so obviously they gave me the most rudimentary option to make me feel better about myself, but it was the application to real life problems in space that was the most fascinating. On the surface what we were doing was no more than a simple experiment to see how different compounds and liquids reacted to each other, but the nurse inside me was genuinely fascinated to learn this was based on real research to discover how and why the body reacts differently to specific nutrients in space, and how they were attempting to change an astronauts diet to prevent muscle and bone density degradation.
It is this real life application to what was essentially just a bit of fun that put a real academic twist on what we were doing, and I loved the fact that if I – as an adult – could enjoy this experience and get something out of it, then kids must come away from here so enthused about STEM topics and how they could make their own contribution to human exploration into space.
The future of space travel.
Our NASA experience did not end there on the International Space Station though, as we were all given a glimpse of what the near future holds.
As NASA’s Space Launch System gets ready to herald the next era of deep space exploration and space tourism, our small group of cadets were given the chance to experience what astronauts in the new Orion spacecraft will see and do as they prepare to explore deeper into space than anyone has ever been, including manned missions to Mars itself.
Compared to the initial simulator that was based on the now defunct Space Shuttle, this felt as different as Star Trek The Next Generation did to the Original Series. Gone were the multitude of flip switches, although there were still a fair few, and 1980s style computer monitors, and instead we were surrounded by a much smaller and compact array of touch screens and buttons that reflected the now infinitely more automated systems of the Orion capsule.
A disembodied voice from Mission control explained what each panel was for through our headsets as we were taken through a series of simulated procedures, including the launch of the SLS itself.
I truly felt like I had gone through a condensed programme that encompassed each era of the entire space programme by the end of it, and I truly didn’t want the experience to end.
How to experience Space Camp for yourself.
My experience at Space Camp genuinely was a bucket list dream come true for me, and is an experience that I will genuinely cherish for the rest of my life, and I actively encourage every traveller and backpacker who are exploring any of the United States to come down to Huntsville and experience it for themselves.
Because that is perhaps the best part. It may not be an experience as well known in the backpacker world as the Inca Trail or Everest Base Camp, but it is every bit as epic, and anyone can do it too!
If you are reading this right now and wishing you could do what I do, then guess what, you can! Space Camp is now open for everyone, and I genuinely believe that as space tourism becomes increasingly normal in the next decade or two, this is a bucket list experience that is not only going to become more and more popular, but almost essential!
So how can you get the Space Camp experience for yourself?
Where is Space Camp?
Space Camp itself is located in the US Space and Rocket Center complex in Huntsville, Alabama.
Huntsville International Airport is located just a short distance away from the US Space and Rocket Centre, and will be both your primary entry and exit points for visiting Huntsville.
How much is Space Camp?
The adult Space Camp experience, Space Academy, is currently priced at $549 USD for the three day, two night experience, accommodation on site and meals included. Seriously, this is absolutely incredible value for a bucket list experience like this. Keep up to date with current pricing on the Mission Control page of the Space Camp website.
Where do you stay at Space Camp?
Most Space Camp attendees will sleep in a four bed dorm in the Space Camp habitat facility, although there are a few great hotels within relative walking distance of the US Space and Rocket Center too that you can choose to stay in if you wish.
How do you book a Space Camp experience?
Booking a Space Camp experience is easy, there are a range of adult space academy experiences throughout the year, with occasional special one off events too, so check on the Mission Control page of the Space Camp website, book yourself in to the next programme and plan your trip to Huntsville around it.
I have said it before and I will say it again, travelling the world is an amazing life changing adventure full of bucket list experiences that every traveller will want to tick off that list, and NASA’s Space Camp easily holds its own against some of the gap year industry’s most iconic experiences.
Many independent travellers and backpackers on their gap year may have never even considered the United States of America as a long term travel destination before as they head off to Africa, South East Asia or other more traditional destinations, but hopefully experiences like Space Camp will change a lot of minds on that score and give you a lot of reasons to visit Huntsville and Alabama while you are here!
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This article was written in partnership with the Huntsville and Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Space Camp and NASA. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.