I remember seeing the movie SpaceCamp
in the theaters back in 1986 and thinking to myself, "I wish I could do that. I wanna be an astronaut!" Being a young 9-year-old boy at the time, about the only thing there was for me to do was dream
. Four years later, I had managed to save up enough money from my paper route
to actually pay for a week at SpaceCamp...except I was too old. Instead, I was enrolled in Space Academy, the program for older kids, and let me tell you this 14-year-old boy had the time of his life.
I remember getting on the airplane at LAX and feeling triumphant because I was flying all by myself for the very first time. Looking back, I'm amazed that I was able to find my connecting flight in Dallas All by myself. But the week I spent there....was incredible. When I first arrived in Huntsville,I was a day early. A few other campers and myself were given a private tour of the US Space and Rocket Center, and even got to try out a few simulators early. But the next day, when all the other campers arrived, the real fun began.
We had to take a test so the counselors could figure out who new how much about the space program. In the four years between seeing the movie and actually going there, I had read every book in print about the space shuttle. needless to say, I had our teams' highest score on the test, and was asked to be shuttle commander for our simulated mission at the end of the week.
This did not go over well with some of the others.
For starters, when I was 14, I was a geek. A BIG geek. I was also pretty plump (my waist size is smaller now than it was then), which, thanks to the cruel politics of teenage life, made me the official team dork. Our team was made up almost entirely of kids from California, and about half of the kids were all friends that had come as part of a school trip. Their little clique was none too pleased with this outcome. (I got my just desserts though, when the biggest jerk on our team got kicked out for spilling a can of soda on the brand-new carpet they had installed in the dorms that week)
After the team selections came the training and the lectures, which were incredibly boring. I'm sorry, but I just don't think it's a good idea to try and teach 14-year olds college level physics in one week. It won't work. But at the end of the week, it was time to strut our stuff at a 4-hour simulated shuttle mission.
Everything started out great. Our shuttle crew got strapped in , Mission Control checked in, and we were off. We got into space, started out mission, and then, suddenly, our counselor came into the cockpit.
"I'm sorry guys," she said, "but, um, your teammates in Mission Control are fighting with each other, so we have to stop the mission early."
The pilot and I looked at each other. We had spent the past 48 hours practicing how to land this hunk of metal, and we were damned if those brats from Sacramento were gonna screw this up for us. I looked back at our counselor and said, "we're not leaving before we land this sucker."
She looked at us, grinned, and hit a few buttons on a keypad near the door. Suddenly, our viewscreens were fast-forwarding through the mission until we got to the reentry stage. "Okay, she said, but you guys are on your own. We already sent the kids in Mission Control to lunch."
So Jeff and I landed the shuttle on our own. We never told the rest of our team what we did, but inside, I felt really cool for the first time, because I proved to myself I could land the fucking space shuttle.
I still keep in touch with a few friends I made during that week in Alabama ten years ago. And I'm sure that somewhere, buried under all the crap I've managed to collect over the years, is the space shuttle operator's manual they gave me. I doubt I'll actually be a real astronaut, but at least I got to see what it was like.