Huntsville, Ala. — "TEN, nine, eight, seven, six, five!" the kids yelled.
It wasn't as deafening as Times Square on New Year's Eve, but the 300 or so children attending Space Camp were as enthusiastic as any midnight revelers. The space shuttle Atlantis was poised to blast off, and by luck, its Friday night launch coincided with the start of our trip to Alabama to learn about astronauts.
The campers -- some as young as 7, many in their teens -- continued the countdown, a crescendo of "four, three, two, one!"
They applauded as Atlantis cleared the tower and thundered into the Florida sky, watching raptly as the orbiter's crew jettisoned its solid rocket boosters (or SRBs, as we soon would learn to call them) and activated its main engine cutoff ("We have MECO!" shouted one older kid particularly well versed in NASA-speak).
During our 2 1/2 Space Camp days, my son, Charles, and I would learn (and repeatedly fail to remember) all manner of NASA acronyms, clamber into various low-gravity rides and simulators, study rocketry history and even wobble around in a pretend -- and comically catastrophic -- space walk.
Watching the Atlantis launch with our fellow campers crystallized the risks, rewards and technical challenges of the very thing we were studying.
As soon as Charles and I finished watching the blastoff, we gathered with our small group to climb into a space shuttle simulator and practice for our own mission.
Space Camp, now celebrating its 25th year, is part hands-on field trip, part pack-a-washcloth sleepover camp. It's an outgrowth of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's museum education program and one of the center's many camp programs aimed at science-minded kids, some of whom bring parents, some of whom don't.
We had signed up for a parent-child program, a course from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning that's geared for kids 7 to 12.
Most of the other Huntsville campers were at the camp alone, either attending parentless Space Camp (ages 9 to 11), Space Academy (12 to 14) or Advanced Space Academy (15 to 18). The center offers identical programs oriented around aviation and fighter pilot training.
Because there are no nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Huntsville, Charles and I routed ourselves through Washington, D.C., for some pre-camp cramming. On our layover day, we visited both of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space museums -- the familiar one on the Mall and the newer, more expansive (and far less crowded) Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Washington Dulles International Airport.
By the time we were ready to leave Washington for Huntsville, we had seen the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, the Gemini VII capsule and the Space Shuttle Enterprise.
The perils of space flight were fresh in our minds too: We visited memorials at Arlington National Cemetery for the 14 crew members killed in the destruction of shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003).
After a two-hour Thursday night flight from Washington to Huntsville in northern Alabama, we caught a free hotel shuttle to the Huntsville Marriott, just a few yards from Space Camp. Registration didn't start until Friday morning, so we spent the night at the hotel.
Space Camp is conducted in and around the rocket center's campus, which includes a bustling museum with the Apollo 16 capsule and a Mars-themed climbing wall, a variety of space-related theme-park rides, an Imax theater showing space movies, a rocket park filled with various NASA artifacts, including a Saturn V rocket, and a full-scale Space Shuttle prototype -- sitting atop a massive external tank (or BOT, for big orange thing) and two SRBs (solid rocket boosters, remember?).
With scores of campers arriving and departing simultaneously and no clearly marked registration table, checking into Space Camp was chaotic. This took place in Habitat, which, for better or worse, was also where we slept. It was a hybrid of a futuristic astronaut dormitory/space station and (to more than a few parents, including me) felt a little bit too much like an upscale correctional facility. Each of its floors held six-person bedrooms; bathrooms were communal but separated by gender.
Because we'd arrived a bit early and our rooms weren't ready (even though you make your own beds), Charles and I toured the somewhat overly militaristic museum, with a prominent exhibit called "Team Redstone: Supporting the Army Transformation," and a surprising number of weapons and military equipment on display.
We grabbed a quick lunch at the Galaxy Food Court, serving museum-quality salads, chicken strips and burgers. Charles kept noticing that about a quarter of the campers were wearing blue flight suits. Although the suit was not required for camp and I had purposefully not ordered one with our camp registration, it clearly was important to Charles, so I bought him one for $80. The uniform shop clerk quickly stamped out a fancy name tag for Charles and told him he had to wear it upside down until he graduated.