Space Camp: teaching the next generation that dreams do come true.

Space Camp is a place where dreams come true and for me, the specialised camp was always just that – a place of dreams. I dreamed about attending Space came as a seven-year-old in the 1980s when the Space Shuttle was all the rage and Space Camp were not available in Australia.

When they launched Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28th 1984, my heart sank with every report of its demise – which would be followed up by more launches and disasters until NASA shut down the program completely in 2011 with the final Shuttle mission STS 135/Atlantis to International Space Station.

Regardless of the setbacks, my dream was to fly… and land the shuttle. For many of my generation, the Shuttle system was OUR spaceship to the stars and was going to change how mankind explored space and our home the Earth.

So when in December 2019, I had the honour of escorting students to both Dallas Texas to visit NASA headquarters, and Huntsville Alabama to spend a week training to be an Astronaut and attend SpaceCamp, my little seven-year-old realised that his long fulfilled dream was going to come true.

Not only did SpaceCamp come true, but the dream of being an Astronaut for a day and get to simulate a landing of the Shuttle was one that I had been dreaming about since the shutdown of the Shuttle program in 2011.

Finally made it to NASA Johnson Space Center

As part of my studies to become a STEM teacher and Maker it is important to understand how science and technology can enable mankind to from here on earth, into Space and back – so getting hands-on experience with training and astronaut equipment at NASA and enjoying everything there was to see (and visit), then spending time learning about what life is like aboard International Space Station under SPHERES program at SpaceCamp made this trip truly magical!

The students we were privileged enough to experience this trip enjoyed every moment because not only did they learn valuable STEM skills such as coding algorithms or designing robotics systems, they got to learn hands-on skills using NASA equipment – including the Shuttle Mission Simulator.

Our first stop on this trip was at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas.

The students had the chance to view NASA hardware such as the shuttle trainer/ orbiter Independence which is housed on one of the original Boeing 747 Shuttle carriers.

They also had the chance to view technology and hardware that was actually used in missions such as the moon rocks and meteorites that were collected on the Apollo missions, with a major highlight of the trip being able to walk around one of three surviving Saturn 5 rockets which we were able to walk around and really understand the technology needed to get people to the moon.

As we were visiting around Christmas time, the Johnson centre had set up a number of light shows based around the equipment and displays, so we headed back to the Johnston Space Center after dark to explore what was on offer. One of the really nice themes being displayed n the light show was all about “inspiration” and “exploration”, two vital elements needed when delving into STEM subjects.

NASA Astronaut Nicole Stott and Gil Poznanski

NASA Astronaut Nicole Stott and the Kosher Tony Stark

We also go to meet with officials from NASA and Nicole Stott, who flew on shuttle mission STS-130, the first time NASA had a station crew member return to Space after being resident aboard ISS. Her story of how she found out about the Astronaut program at NASA  was one that really hit home with me as it reminded me of my own journey exploring the Space program and teaching STEM.

She spoke of her surprise at winning SpaceCamp Space Scholarships as a teenager, and then her shock that she was selected to be the first Space station crew member returnee. It really emphasized how important it is for all students to not give up on their dreams of travel, exploration or STEM careers no matter what obstacles seem in their way.

After meeting with Nicole, and her time with us inspired everyone to travel to Huntsville and get to the next phase of our journey, training at SpaceCamp.

SpaceCamp is located at the U.S Space & Rocket centre in Huntsville Alabama and the U.S Space & Rocket centre is a science and technology-themed museum that houses the camping facilities and infrastructure for SpaceCamp.

Over the years I had read up about all the different simulators that campers would have access to but the only simulator that is available for visitors in Huntsville Alabama these days is called “Rendezvous” whereas before, there were other simulators such as the Apollo 13 trainer and Shuttle Training facilities on site. However, this did not detract from my experience at all! In fact, after meeting with Nicole Stott earlier in Houston Texas, it seemed like SpaceCamp had taken on a new life of its own!

GIl at Space Camp overlooking the Space Shuttle Pathfinder

GIl at Space Camp overlooking the Space Shuttle Pathfinder

And not all of the experiences were based on learning and training. Our students loved visiting the USSRC’s Space Shot ride which shoots you vertically into space then free-falls through a tube back down to Earth. Whenever we has some free time between sessions, the students would ask to rid the Space Shot. And then challenge me to go with them, which of course I had to oblige.

We also were able to learn more about human exploration into space and was rewarded by exploring the SpaceCamp museum and viewing the Spacesuit displays, learning about flight missions and exploration, and watch Space-based documentaries in the dedicated theatre onsite.

The students also found out all about space careers, and how they work around the world, with speakers from NASA’s International Space Station Live: Area 31 project talking all about their experiences and what inspired them to take up their jobs.

They also talked about why STEM subjects are important for Space exploration, and how their career can relate to STEM concepts.

We also spent time with Dr Jeff Goldstein of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center who talked about the importance of education in technology fields at all levels across both America and Australia as well as his experiences developing new technologies that might be used in future missions!

It was an incredible trip, where students were able to meet astronauts, rocket scientists, Space industry professionals from around the world but it wasn’t until we met up with some fellow Australian campers I realised having dreams is not enough… you have got to keep training if your dream is going into space or STEM-related industries no matter what obstacles are thrown your way!

The right attitude will take you to explore the unknown own, and I hope that every student who dreams of Space will have the same inspiring opportunity to go train at SpaceCamp so they can become their own astronaut.

For me, the journey has just begun.