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Space Camp Falls From Orbit and Into Foreclosure

Science: Kids say they're more interested in Earthbound pursuits. Events of Sept. 11 also affected attendance at Florida facility.

September 25, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — Here on a school field trip, Grace Wilkowski trooped past cases of memorabilia from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, and etched acrylic likenesses of the astronauts who were heroes to a generation of Americans.

Space, remarked the Georgia teen, seems so passe.

"With the problems we have on Earth, space exploration isn't now our top priority," said the 14-year-old from Savannah who wants to become a physician. "It's OK to do some preliminary exploration and stuff, but we need to be able to figure out how to better survive on Earth together."

That attitude, in a nutshell, may explain the woes of U.S. Space Camp Florida, a privately run training ground for young would-be astronauts outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center. Dropping attendance and related financial problems have forced the facility and the adjacent U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame into foreclosure, and barring the eleventh-hour intervention of an angel investor, the attractions will be auctioned off at a Florida courthouse today. A related space camp in Mountain View, Calif., went belly up in January.

One week this month, the Florida camp graduated only 14 children, though it has room for 276. September is normally a slack time, said Mary Merritt, director of the camp and hall of fame, but she acknowledged that enrollment has been falling for more than a year.

Once such a national passion that astronaut John Glenn, who in February 1962 became the first American to orbit the Earth, needed six people to help answer his fan mail, interest in space has been dwindling among adults and children alike for years, said Jeff Brown, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "As a society," he said, "we've shifted our focus from outer space to computer space."

Then came Sept. 11.

"Cops and firemen have always been something we valued, but now the real heroism of their work is evident," Brown added. "I've heard some little girls say they now want to grow up not to be a high-fashion model, but a policewoman."

America's first woman in space, Sally K. Ride, said she finds that while many young people don't know much about the history of the space program, they are still fascinated by outer space.

"They are absolutely enthralled by astronauts, by space exploration, by being weightless in space, by looking back at Earth," said Ride, a professor of physics at UC San Diego. "It's amazing to me how many of them yearn to be in the space program."

Space, Ride said, remains a remarkably effective hook to grab and keep children's attention. The accompanying message to America's girls from an educational company that Ride has founded, Imaginary Lines Inc., is that "it's fascinating, cool, OK" to be interested in math, science and engineering, she said.

If Space Camp felt the shock of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Merritt said, it's chiefly because families became much more reluctant to allow their sons and daughters to fly unaccompanied on airliners to attend. An economic downturn already underway also thinned the ranks of parents willing or able to spend up to $799 in peak season on a five-day virtual cosmic experience for their child.

"Our enrollment has declined, especially after Sept. 11, but our organization has not done a good job in marketing itself," Merritt said. "I think children are still interested in space and dream of being astronauts."

Space Camp traces its genesis to German-born rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, who believed youngsters could be lured into studying the sciences by being exposed to the excitement and romance of space travel. The first camp opened in Huntsville, Ala., in 1982, and was so successful that the Florida installation opened in 1988. Other camps sprang up from Japan to California.

Campers clad in sky-blue flight suits are spun here in centrifuges, don harnesses that let them walk in simulated lunar gravity, and work on a "zero-G wall" where pulleys and harnesses duplicate the weightlessness of space. There are simulated space shuttle missions, with teams working inside realistic mock-ups of the spacecraft and mission control center.

The Florida camp alone claims to have introduced more than 50,000 children to the rudiments of imitation spaceflight, including a seventh-grader in 1993 named Lance Bass, who, as a member of the pop group 'N Sync, tried to join a three-man Russian crew blasting off next month to the International Space Station.

Bass, now 23, was bumped from the Oct. 28 Soyuz launch and replaced by a cargo container when he didn't pay the $20-million fee demanded by the Russians, but he was reported this week to be at Russia's cosmonaut center outside Moscow beginning another training program.

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