If you're a child of the '90s, it's likely either you or someone you know at one point wanted to go to Space Camp. The idea of Space Camp, in which attendees would wear a spacesuit, eat freeze-dried ice cream, and pretend to go to the moon for a full weekend, was so cool to kids that it was constantly offered as a grand prize on '90s game shows. So you can imagine how I felt when an email appeared in my inbox back in October with the subject line, "Can you join Nat Geo at SPACECAMP!?" Instantly, this 27-year-old was transported back in time to when I was 10, and obviously, my answer was a resounding, "Yes!!" And so, to coincide with the series premiere of NatGeo's One Strange Rock, the network sent me along with a group of about 25 journalists down to Huntsville, Ala., for three days in December to live out every kid's dream.
But as I began packing my bags for what was sure-to-be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I started to get nervous. What if going to Space Camp as an adult didn't live up to 27 years of expectations? What if Space Camp was something to be enjoyed as a kid for a reason? But after a full day of travel (getting from Los Angeles to Huntsville is a trek), and a very chatty car ride from the airport to my hotel, I was ready to see if Space Camp was really all I imagined it would be more than a decade ago.
Our group finally arrived at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for Space Camp bright and early the next morning. I could tell we had arrived because of the giant spaceship and rocket just chilling right outside of the main entrance.
But before we could get to the fun activities, we had to sit through orientation. I did learn that there are different kinds of Space Camp programs for different age groups: Space Camp (ages 9-11), Space Academy (ages 12-14), Advanced Space Academy (ages 15-18) and Adult Space Camp (ages 18+). Now, I know what you're thinking because I thought it too — we would be experiencing the Adult Space Camp program, since we were all very clearly over 18. But nope! Even though we were all adults in our 20s-50s, we weren't going to do the Advanced Space Academy, since we weren't all aspiring engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. This really was a kid's dream come true! At the end of orientation, we suited up in real flight blues (not the most flattering piece of clothing for this short and curvy girl, but the patches were dope) and were split into two teams, and you better believe the competition got intense ... even when there was no competition at all. This is just what happens when you split a bunch of nerdy adults into teams at Space Camp.
The teams ended up being a way to organize the two separate mission simulations we had to complete over the course of Space Camp: a mission to the International Space Station and a mission to Mars. My team had the ISS mission simulation on the first day and Mars on the second day, which honestly seemed like the natural progression, so Team Kennedy definitely had the better schedule (the competition is still alive and well all these months later, can you tell?). We each were assigned a job for the mission, and after a little training it was finally time for the good stuff.
By "good stuff," I mean the activities everyone always associates with Space Camp: the 1/6th Gravity Chair and the Multi-Axis Trainer. I cannot accurately put into words how nervous I was to take on the MAT, despite everyone's assurance that it doesn't make you dizzy or nauseous. Even though it spins you in circles and upside down to train in rotational equilibrium and orientation, your center of gravity never actually moves because of the way the chair is designed ... but it still looks extremely wild, so my heart was beating out of my chest as they strapped me in. Then, with one giant spin, my world was turned upside down.
The good news? Everyone was right, and I never got nauseous! But I was still ready for the ride to end as soon as it began. The 1/6th Gravity Chair was a completely different story, and was my favorite part of all of Space Camp. You get strapped into a chair that's hooked up to hydraulics that allows you to jump and leap around as if you were on the moon, since you'd only weigh 1/6th of your body weight up there. The fake moon terrain underneath your feet definitely adds to the illusion. It was so much fun putting on a show of moon ballet for all my fellow Space Campers, and I could have stayed in that chair for hours. But alas, it was time to move on too soon.
The ISS mission simulation began, and I was assigned the job of mission specialist on the space station. Myself along with my fellow journalist friend got to suit up in the real space suits (with vests made out of ice packs to help regulate our body temps!) and live out Mission Impossible in space by completing an extravehicular activity (EVA). We had to fix a broken heat shield panel on the outside of the station, so we were lifted by harnesses to simulate being out in space while performing the repair. It was truly out of this world (as you can imagine, we all overused that pun way too much over the course of two days). The mission was a success, and then it was time for the first night activity: scuba diving.
Since being underwater simulates zero gravity, we got to learn how to scuba dive in a 25-foot deep tank. A lot of people in our group opted out of this (it was a three-hour activity late at night after a full day, the tank's heat was broken so the water was freezing even with wetsuits on, and some people just didn't want to get wet) but I thought they were all nuts. Who says no to anything at Space Camp?! Since the tank could only accommodate about eight divers plus the instructors at once, I volunteered to go in the second group. I waited a few hours for the first group to finish, and got nervous when I saw only one or two divers make it down to the bottom of the tank. The rest just stayed pretty much at surface level for the whole time. Was I doomed to stay at the surface level when it was time to get in the water? Why was everyone having issues getting to the bottom?
When it was finally my turn to dive, the rest of my group chickened out and had gone back to the hotel. As the only Space Camp diver, I had the whole tank pretty much to myself! Only myself, the diving instructors, and our designated Space Camp photographer were in the water, and it was amazing. I learned all the basics of scuba diving, how to clear my mask of water while underwater, how to breathe and all the hand signals, and just like that, I was ready to step off the ledge and dive. It was easier than I thought! Twenty minutes of training and I was already at the very bottom of the tank. The pressure was insane, but I got used to it pretty quickly. It wasn't until about 35 minutes later that one of my ears started to hurt, and so I came back to the surface and was ready to call it a night.
After the successful and packed first day of Space Camp (with my eyes still a bit red from a combination of the chlorine and lack of sleep from the night before), I was ready for day two. We started the day with a tour of the museum housing the Saturn V Launch Vehicle. This thing was huge! But all we could think and talk about was our team's impending mission to Mars later that day with the ORION. First we trained for the mission, went outside to fly model rockets we made the day before, and then it was time for the highly-anticipated Mars mission simulation. This time, I was assigned a job in the Mission Control Room, complete with a headset that broadcast to our whole team in the space shuttle and in the Mars colony. Big. Mistake. Give this girl a microphone and she will use it.
Since this is usually a simulation meant for kids, there were three rules given to all of us in the control room with microphones: don't curse, don't breathe heavily, and follow the script. So of course, we broke all three. We constantly went off script, made dirty jokes and euphemisms, and dropped f-bombs like you wouldn't believe. There were many jabs taken at Matt Damon's expense. And yes, we breathed heavily into the mics. A lot. I'd say I was sorry, but we were having the time of our lives. This is just what happens when you tell grown adults what not to do!
Another successful mission completed, it was time to graduate. Still wearing our flight blues, we each were called up to receive our diploma and wings. The instructors told our team that we were the most entertaining group they'd ever had, and I don't doubt it. We were pretty proud of the legacy we'd be leaving behind in Huntsville. But before we called it a day, we put on some cocktail attire to attend the 45th Anniversary of the Apollo 17 event, celebrating Dr. Harrison Schmitt, who was one of 12 Apollo 17 astronauts to walk on the moon in 1972.
But he wasn't the only astronaut we got to meet. Leland Melvin, one of the eight legendary astronauts featured in One Strange Rock, was game to field our questions about what it's really like to go into space. It turns out that one of the biggest misconceptions about space travel is that the food is horrible, because according to Melvin, the food is "really good." And that's not the only truth bomb he dropped.
"People always ask me what is the hardest thing to do in space and I always tell them it's going to the bathroom because everything floats, to be honest," Melvin says. And apparently space travel in general is really hard on your body. "Your vision, your joints," Melvin adds. "People think you're floating around the space station effortlessly, but there's solar radiation, there's a lot of things that are combating your body and your health that can damage you over time."
And that's not even taking into account the psychological and mental toll it takes on astronauts. "That's why we need to understand, when we go to Mars, how it affects your body and your mind in a lot of ways," Melvin says. "What is your psychological well-being from being in space for three months at a time, or the cycle of launching to Mars, waiting a year and coming back? What is that going to be like for your psychological well-being?"
While many of the effects of space travel are still unknown, Alice Jones, who directed the 10th and final episode of One Strange Rock and was part of our legendary Space Camp team, wants to give viewers who will never go to space the jaw-dropping experience of being able to see our planet from afar.
"We have these eight astronauts who all had this profound, life-changing experience which isn't about leaving the planet and looking into the universe," she says. "It's about looking back at their home and they see it in a totally different way. They see it glow with light, they see the colors, and they're so divorced from it in that experience of being in these grey, white airless cabins with no other living thing other than the other astronauts they're living with. It's sterile and they look back at their home, at Earth from space, and they all well up."
That emotional experience that every astronaut has in that moment is called the overview effect. "I hope when people watch it, they start to feel that shift that the astronauts went through," Jones says. "The profound shift in how they see the planet, the fragility and the loneliness of our Earth in the vastness of space that makes a change in how they behave." It's poetic that the most memorable part of going into space for all astronauts is realizing how special their home on Earth is, especially since the most memorable part of Space Camp for me was figuring out how many different dirty euphemisms I could say into the mic. I'd say both have the same emotional resonance, wouldn't you?