Though the U.S. is still trying to push students to absorb more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL—aka Rocket City—has been steering hopeful scientists for decades, since opening the doors to Space Camp in 1982. Space Camp is a STEM education fantasy world, in which kids in attendance experience days of STEM learning wrapped into intensive space exploration and rocketry know-how.
Here in Rocket City, students have come with their parents over Labor Day weekend to take part in the experience of a lifetime. In the heat of the Alabama sun, students set their rockets on a launcher and take cover. One by one the sticker-covered cardboard tubes shoot up above a tree canopy, each a successful launch, a sign their construction is true.
Although a camp, everything is geared toward space science. Bathrooms? Renamed Waste Management. Students sleep in bunk beds in the Habitat. And instead of a camp mascot, Pathfinder (yes, that Pathfinder) stands guard attached to an MPTA-ET external tank, plus two Advanced Solid Rocket Booster casings—the only complete full-scale Space Shuttle on display in the world.
The facility is the vision of Edward O. Buckbee, first director of what is now the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, who recalls a discussion with Dr. Wernher von Braun, former head of the Marshall Space Flight Center, who had also appointed Buckbee into his position. “We have band camp, football, cheerleading,” Buckbee recalls von Braun as saying. “Why don’t we have space camp?”
Buckbee agreed, and launched the program which today boasts an extraordinary success rate at inspiring students into further STEM exploration.
With more than half a million students having attended Space Camp from around the globe, 93 percent report they’ve taken more science classes, particularly physics and chemistry, with 91 percent reporting they’ve taken more math, according to Space Camp statistics.
Huntsville earned its moniker, Rocket City, for designing and building rockets at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Think modules for the International Space Station and designs for the new Space Launch System, which is one day meant to send astronauts back into space. Inside Space Camp, just an 11-minute car ride away, students are learning building blocks that may take them thousands of miles into deep space on those very rockets.
Days are spent running missions—scripted facsimiles where students role play as Space Commander or Mission Scientist. Except at Space Camp they actually do run experiments, building polymers or conducting exothermic reactions near the struggling hydroponic tomato plants inside the scale model of the Space Station. When there’s work to be done outside, they don space suits and are belted into Manned Maneuvering Units to mimic the experience, and difficulty, of moving in outer space while trying, for example, to tighten a screw to a steel rod.
Other missions explore the Space Shuttle and Orion, the latest exploration vehicle being designed to finally send manned missions back through our Solar System. Back on earth, students glean space history inside the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Here, though, visual aids aren’t NASA video clips but a Saturn V rocket (yes, the kind that sent the Apollo missions on their way) and Casper, the actual command capsule from the Apollo 16 mission.
All counselors have training, although not all are scientists themselves. Still, they all have a geek-like appreciation for the museum and the science within.There’s joy as a 10-year-old girl wills herself to get strapped into the Multi-Axis Trainer—the simulator that has tested many astronauts on their ability to handle disorientation if ever they find themselves in a tumble spin during re-entry into Earth. Other simulators include a 5DF, or “five degrees of freedom” chair, which allows astronauts to practice moving in a frictionless environment, and a harness that mimics the feeling of 1/6th gravity on the Moon. There’s a new appreciation for Neil Armstrong’s coordination during his famous walk.
Sure, not every school has access to a Space Shuttle or a Mercury-Redstone rocket. But students seem less enthralled from their closeness to these historical gems than for the opportunity to physically play in a science environment—and for the adults around them to treat them as the scientists they know they can be.