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Steve Sawicki...Space (Academy) Cadet... by Steven Sawicki
SFRevu Event  ISBN/ITEM#: 0509SC
Date: See Website / Show Official Info /

Sitting in the shuttle's pilot's chair twenty minutes into a mission, the warning klaxons get your attention when they go off. The first thing you do is turn it off, finish the task at hand if it's a short one (or mark your place if it's a long one) and then see what's wrong. The Mission Commander is running through a checklist shutting the main engines down after our initial orbital insertion, so I get to it first, then take a look at the warning indicators and note that our APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) warning light is on.

"Houston, Atlantis, we've got an APU warning indicator," I say into my headset mike.

"Roger, we see it, Atlantis. Will advise," the voice of CapCom comes back. It's the morning of Day Two of Space Academy (Space Camp) in Huntsville, Alabama and we've just finished orbital insertion of our simulated mission. The guy sitting next to me is a commercial pilot who flies B-17's for fun. Our two mission Specialists are in the Orbiter Bay, suiting up to do an EVA which will involve some space construction. They'll use zero-g chairs to simulate the physics of trying to build something in space. I'm getting ready to run the checklist that will allow us to dock with the International Space Station. Regardless of what we're doing or where we're from or what we do in the world sitting in simulation so far below us, we're all here because we're space fans and we wanted to get as good an idea as possible as to what it might be like to be an astronaut.

Space Camp, part of the U. S. Space and Rocket Center, lies just southwest of Huntsville Alabama. There's a museum, a rocket park, an IMAX theater, and, perhaps most importantly a complex of buildings that makes up the home of the U. S. Space Camp Programs. Space Camp actually consists of a number of programs such as the Parent/Child Space Camp, Space Camp (grades 4-6), Space Academy (grades 6-8), Advanced Space Academy (grades 9-12), Adult Academy, Corporate Academy, Educator Space Academy, Aviation Challenges and special programs for the Visually Impaired and Corporate Sponsored Outreach School Programs. The complex is part of the Marshal Space Flight Center, the third mission control complex in the US after Kennedy and Houston.

The 3 day Adult Space Academy begins with an orientation to the program and the shuttle and includes time on 8 different simulators including an MMU simulator, a 1/6 g chair, a 3g centrifuge, a 4 g lateral centrifuge, a 4g/microgravity Space Shot, an F-18 simulator and 2 two hour shuttle missions. The days are long, beginning at 7:30 AM and ending around 10:00 PM and include breakfast, lunch and dinner. There's also a hotel next to the center for those who wish to upgrade their accomodations from group living or who just want to partake in a night cap assuming they have the energy.

I was there with a great group of 9 other adults who knew when to take things seriously and when to laugh and have some fun and this was a definite plus to the weekend.

The highlight of the event is definitely the two shuttle missions. For one you're in the Orbiter and the other in Mission control. In the Orbiter, you have the chance to be the Mission Commander, the Pilot, one of two Mission Specialists, or a space hab crew. In Mission Control you might be Flight Director, CATO, CAPCOM, PROP, Mission Scientist, or EVA. Everything's more or less scripted so you don't need a huge amount of knowledge about these things before hand. Even so there's plenty of opportunity to adlib and plenty of chances for things to go wrong, which brings me back to the APU warning indicator which went off during our mission. Turns out that the APU warning was just a faulty sensor, which we acknowledged and then went on to dock with the ISS, complete our construction project and then head back to Earth. We managed to plant the shuttle more or less in the vicinity of the runway, although we were traveling at a fairly high rate of speed when we did so. Seems that no one had ever asked to try to pilot a shuttle simulator back from orbit before until we did. But they accomodated us and we dead sticked it in. I have to tell you that things looked really good up until the final thousand feet or so. Like they say though, any landing you can walk away from is a good one and we had a blast doing it.

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