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Space Camp: Rocket to the Future : Children Attending Alabama Center Cross a Time Warp

August 29, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Today I learned about early rockets such as the V-2, which used solid fuel. I saw many rockets and engines. We had a demonstration on how heat tile could resist an extremely intense flame. --From the astronaut log of Jeremy Eisen, 13, of Harrisburg, Pa.

The boy boarding Republic flight 571 bound from Huntsville to Memphis attracted the flight attendant's attention because of his cap and T-shirt bearing the logo, "United States Space Camp."

"Oh, you've been to summer camp," the woman said. "What did you make there?"

The boy could not show her a potholder or beaded belt. His sole camp crafts project--a rocket--had crashed. He might have mentioned that he had learned to fly the space shuttle at camp, but that would have confused the airline attendant, so he took his seat without going into detail.

While some kids return from summer camp matured and perhaps a bit better able to relate to their parents, children who've attended Space Camp at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center cross a kind of technological time warp. Suddenly they're citizens of the future, while parents, teachers and flight attendants are left struggling to understand them.

"It's tough for the teacher in the hinterlands trying to deal with this space camper we've returned to her. I feel for her," said camp director Edward Buckbee.

Wonderland of Gadgetry

When parents arrive on the fifth and final day to tour the camp--a wonderland of genuine and mock-up space gadgetry housed in a separate building at what is billed as "Earth's Largest Space Museum"--some get the feeling they're walking into a world that belongs to youth. Adults who grew up in awe of space travel are the outsiders here. Kathryn and John Taylor of Los Angeles, for instance, were forced to refer to a glossary of NASA terms to interpret their children's new language.

The Taylors arrived to find their 13-year-old, Bryan, upside down in the Five Degrees of Freedom simulator, a training device that allows astronauts to practice tasks to be completed in weightlessness. Bryan's tennis shoes were lodged in restraints above his head as he attempted to carry out equipment repairs in simulated zero gravity.

The Taylors' other son, Eric, 11, had both hands on a mission control panel originally used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for training astronauts in the Skylab program. (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville sponsors the camp.) He was acting as systems director on a simulated shuttle mission.

Both parents kept a respectful distance from the junior shuttle crew. "They (Eric and Bryan) have obviously been busy," observed John Taylor, an industrial real estate developer. "They never called home once all week."

Jeremy Eisen's astronaut log:

We learned about the evolution of spacesuits, from the Navy Mark IV to the Apollo 17, and noticed different zipper placement and helmet size. We learned about the pressurization of the suits, their backup systems, waste disposal, liquid cooling, etc.

The counselors are not much older than their charges at space camp, who are from 11 to 16 years old. (Camp sessions for adults are being introduced.) Youths and counselors alike are fascinated by the space garb. Just donning the pale blue shuttle jump suits--identical in appearance to ones worn on recent shuttle missions--seemed to inspire the campers to take their make-believe roles seriously .

There was much talk about what uses the jump suits would be put to once the campers got home. "You'd really wear that thing to school?" Travis Hamilton of Fremont, Calif., asked Melissa Evans of Highland Mills, N.Y., as they puttered over experiments in the space station.

"The suits are my favorite part of the whole thing (Space Camp)," said counselor Brad Dale, a 20-year-old management major from Auburn University in Alabama. "I think the neatest picture I could have of myself would be in a spacesuit--not just any suit, but an Apollo suit."

In the glass-enclosed suit-up area that approximates a sterile astronaut changing room, Dale searched for labels in the lining of the spacesuits to see whose hand-me-downs the campers might be trying on. There was Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan's backpack, he pointed out; Skylab astronaut Alan Bean's gloves. . . .

While actual equipment used in space launches is protected in the Space Museum or the Smithsonian for its historic importance, many items used in training and as backup on missions have been donated to the camp by NASA, which also provides technical experts to speak to campers on matters such as rocket design. NASA and the astronauts themselves--many of whom have stopped by when in Huntsville to spend a few hours with the campers--are friendly to the camp because it promotes interest in the space program in a way the schools do not.

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