Alan is my best friend. We met in college while noticing the same very short skirt. He is 364 days younger than I am, so his birthday falls one day ahead of mine on the calendar. Naturally we would celebrate both birthdays the same weekend, back when birthdays meant cake and ice cream, and not “time to update my will”. He was in the Army and would be assigned to new locations on a regular basis. I was an up and coming computer programmer, moving from job to job and state to state as necessary. In 1995 we realized that we hadn’t celebrated our birthdays in over a decade, so we made a plan to do something together in 1996. That something turned out to be Adult Space Camp.
NASA realized that in order to have enough scientists and technicians for the future, they would have to encourage young children to dream about working in outer space. Space Camp was intended to do that. Children would visit the training center in Huntsville, Alabama for a week, learning math and science, and making pretend space walks. Perhaps to alleviate home sickness, parents were eventually allowed to participate with their children. Much to NASA’s surprise, the adults were having more fun than the children, and Adult Space Camp was born.
Alan and I registered for camp, and flew to Huntsville on different flights. I arrived first and was pretty much abandoned at the airport. Eventually I found a ride to the NASA facility, but no one was there to greet my arrival or help me settle in. Alan arrived soon after, and we wandered around unsupervised and feeling under-appreciated. We almost decided to abort this plan and visit another college friend who lived nearby. Fortunately, we decided to wait at least one day before we cancelled NASA’s ticket.
As other people started to arrive our group began to coalesce on the floor. It is important for you to know that Alan and I are totally incorrigible when we’re alone. When we are together, we feed off of each other’s energy, and develop a synergy greater than the sum of our parts. Extrovert times Extrovert equals “where the heck did these guys come from?” Some of our group thought that Alan and I were NASA employees who were there to supervise. Imagine their surprise when they learned that they would have to endure us as part of their team!
Someone had given me a Space Shuttle Reference Manual that contains tens of thousands of detailed facts. My mother was unimpressed. “Who the hell would want something like that?” she mused. “I DO!” I responded. My plan was to be the smartest person at Space Camp, so I absorbed as much of the book as I possibly could, expecting that it would position me at the head of the class. However… ask yourself who would be silly enough to spend a week of their vacation pretending to be an astronaut. Realize that only people with an intense interest in the exploration of space are going to show up. It turns out that nearly everyone in our group had memorized the book as well. My effort to set myself apart was yet to be accomplished.
The first morning we were given baby blue jumpsuits, and we toured the shuttle simulator. The shuttle may be huge, but the vast majority of space is payload area. Astronauts live in a very small space in the cockpit. Imagine spending several days in a small camper with eight other people. Do NOT become an astronaut if you are the least bit claustrophobic. For three days the eighteen members of our group studied together. The information NASA gave us was not superficial. We were learning real science.
I arrived two minutes late for an early morning session scheduled to last an hour. Our instructors asked us how long it would take to communicate with astronauts if they were living and working on Mars. I raised my hand and said, “I know!”. Then I walked to the vinyl board to diagram the hypothesis. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second. When Earth and Mars are on the same side of the Sun, the distance between the planets is roughly 48.5 million miles, so radio waves would take four minutes and twenty seconds to get to Mars. Double that time before you can get a response back from the human Martians. However, if the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun, the distance between them is now 234.5 million miles, and radio signals would take twenty-one minutes for a one-way trip. In my zeal to impress, I managed to condense one hour of training into five minutes. The instructors were stunned. Our group looked at Alan and asked, “Is he ALWAYS like this?” Alan smiled and said, “Yes. Pretty much.” I had distinguished myself among the group, but only for the moment.
By our third day together we had developed strong bonds within the group. Alan and I were still the primary instigators, but we were certainly not the only ones. Our task that day was to invent a mission patch that uniquely identified our team. We were all perfectionists, but we also had an active sense of humor. We named our group Zero Defeks, deliberately misspelled, which we hoped expressed both of those qualities. We had discovered that ours would be the last Adult Space Camp, so our motto was “End of a Perfect Mission”. The patch showed an image of the shuttle over the American flag, and in the corner, a very red planet. That’s because our team would “take NASA all the way to Mars… and beyond”. On the right side of the patch we put SA II 36-96. Space Academy Two, the thirty-sixth week of the ninety-sixth year.
(Pat, Diane, Cathy, Michael, Sheri,
Earl (deceased), Marcia, Laura, and Jim (deceased))
The next three days we were divided into three groups that trained separately. Aeronautics (pilots), Engineering (space walks), and Science (medical and experiments). Alan and I were both in the Engineering group. One of the things we learned is that in order to put out fires on the ISS (International Space Station), you can’t just grab an extinguisher and pull the trigger. The extinguisher would act like a jet engine, and send you flying backwards through the station. You have to have another astronaut stand behind you while bracing themselves against the bulkhead. And learning how to use the toilet in a microgravity environment poses problems that you’ve never had to consider living on Terra Firma.
The last day of our training involved an “Extended Duration Mission”, or EDM. From 0700 to 1900 you were confined to either the shuttle simulator, the ISS simulator, or Mission Control. The instructors watched from behind one-way mirrors, and apparently, the only joy they experienced all week was creating scenarios where astronaut wannabees experienced fake fatalities. Our team had already labeled itself Zero Defeks, so we had no intention of shuffling off our simulated mortal coils. Listening to the inevitable countdown generated actual excitement and anxiety. Three! Two! One! LIFTOFF! Somewhere in the building a large eccentric wheel started to spin, and the whole floor began to shake violently. For a split second I though we might actually leave the ground. Two minutes and thirteen seconds after liftoff, the solid booster rockets are supposed to jettison automatically. They did not. We were told that some adult groups actually try to land with them still attached. Pat, our pilot, reached over his head and in four seconds he flipped a switch to manually jettison the boosters. The instructors paused the simulation and yelled “FOUL!” They insisted that REAL astronauts take a minute or more to jettison the rockets (something I am disinclined to believe). They insisted that wannabees like us could NEVER respond that quickly.
Children were not allowed to leave the training center. However adults were free to wander if they chose, and our Zero Defeks crew chose to visit the bar at the Holiday Inn next door every evening after dinner. The bar was called Otters, and we would sit, laugh, and talk about life on the ISS. Eventually I noticed that Pat would arrive one or two hours later than the rest of us. It turns out that before joining us at the bar, Pat would return to the shuttle simulator to memorize all of the switches in the cockpit. There are switches to the left, to the right, in front, and overhead. Literally hundreds of switches, each with a specific function. Everyone in the group was a perfectionist, and Pat took responsibility for knowing his job completely. So when the instructors announced that the booster rockets failed to eject, it was easy for him to respond instantly. BOO-yah! We are Zero Defeks!
Everyone had procedure manuals to follow while performing their duties. My job was to supervise the EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activities, or space walks) from inside the shuttle. All of that would have been difficult enough without the instructors throwing monkey wrenches into the works. No sooner had my two astronauts gotten dressed and out to the cargo bay when Alan called me on the “radio” to inform me that one of the space suits was losing pressure. I called Sheri back in, and we found a small piece of tape hidden under a buckle that said “LEAK”. I was able to put two new pieces of tape over the pretend leak, and we were back in business. Sheri and Tom were busy fixing the “satellite” that hung from the ceiling by a wire cable. That is when Alan called me on the “radio” to inform me that the reentry process would begin in five minutes. In laymen’s terms, we were about to go home leaving two of my astronauts in orbit waiting for another bus. (And Alan calls me his best friend! Ha!)
I immediately warned my astronauts that they had three minutes to return to the airlock! I instructed them to jettison the tools into “space” rather than spending time to put them back in the toolbox. I used fake static to inform Alan that my “radio” was malfunctioning, and then I turned it off. I knew I would face insubordination charges “back on Earth”, but I wasn’t about to lose members of my team. Sheri and Tom made it back to the airlock in time, but had to ride through the reentry process in the airlock. They were uncomfortable, but they were alive.
Before landing I had the instructors patch me through to everyone’s headset, and I read them a poem I had memorized that brought tears to everyone’s eyes. We landed without incident, and without a single “fatality”. At the after party we ate cake decorated with a large copy of our mission patch, and we discovered that we were the first and only adult team ever to survive the EDM without a fatality. As our patch prophetically announced, we were the “End of a Perfect Mission”. The mission may have been simulated, but the team spirit and intense self-satisfaction was very real.
THE SONG OF THE AERONAUT
By Berton Braley (1882-1966)
Up from the emerald turf I rise to the lure of the arching blue,
With a song in my heart like the ancient song the great Olympians knew.
While I steady myself on wings of white to the rush of the roving breeze,
Tempting the wrath of the infinite, the marvelous weightless seas;
Below me the world is a blur of green, a flicker of brown and red,
And the vault of the sky is mine to try and the limitless vast ahead!
It’s sport that only the birds have known who poise in the upper day,
But now I challenge their airy throne – these kings of the blue highway!
I buffet my route through winds that shout, I dip to the billows of air,
And mock me the hawk and the pirate bird that hover in wonder there.
Disdainful I sweep above mortals who creep like worms on the overturned clod,
And serenely I soar in the empire of space – an insolent, strong-winged god!
The purr of the motors, the shiver of wires and the lift of the quivering planes,
As I clamber the side of aerial hills and swoop down aerial lanes,
Stir all my blood to a turbulent flood till all this that is earthly of me
Is lost in a rapture of speed and of flight – I am free, I am free, I am free!
For mine is no road that is meted and bound, but the way of the wind and the sky,
Beyond all the dust and the fret and the heat, above all the clamor I fly
To the height where the hawk circles wary and lone, to the vault where the bald eagles scream,
Where fetters of earth and the worries of earth are dim in the haze of a dream.
Then sudden I drop toward the world I have left and the wind whistles keen through the frame,
Or I wheel and I swing in a glorious ring on a trail that is never the same.
Oh, danger is mine in the frolic divine as I dare all the forces that slay,
But mine is the song of the free and the strong – the Lord of the Blue Highway!