Fly to the moon

And share a space—or fighter jet—adventure with your child


Susy Schultz

Do you want to break the sound barrier or fly the space shuttle to the moon? It’s a much shorter trip than you might think.

It’s as close as Huntsville, Ala., and a three-day camp adventure at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Museum.

And the best part is you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this experience. In fact, you and your child (ages 7 to 12) can choose from two different camps. Space Camp is like stepping into the movie "Apollo 13"—you learn to operate a shuttle and perform amazing space missions. Aviation Challenge is more along the lines of filling in for Tom Cruise in "Top Gun"— you learn to fly big, fancy jets.

My son, Zach, and I were guests of the Hunstville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau on a recent weekend camp for parents and children. Kids and adults (ages 7 to 99) can also experience the two camps separately. But the parent-and-child weekends are the only way you can experience it all together.

I think that is the way to go—it’s the perfect opportunity to share an adventure with your younger child or reconnect with your tween.

On our trip, we got a taste of what families experience at both camps and it was amazing.

We spent most of our time exploring Space Camp: together, on a mission, parent and child, facing space, the final frontier.

Zach actually flew the Space Shuttle, while I tried to build a platform in space as a mission specialist. We had a launch, a lift-off and a landing. All the time, we kept a running conversation with our crew on the ground: "Hello, Mission Control."

Or make that Mission Operations Control Room, or MOCR. (We learned a new language as well.)

Yes, it was simulated. But this wasn’t just play acting—it felt very serious. That’s because the camp goes to great lengths to give you a taste of what the astronauts and specialists actually go through, from weightlessness to the hundreds of dials and switches on the control board.

We were briefed before the mission. Then, each of us was given a book with dialogue and specific duties before we were marched to the shuttle. We stayed in the cockpit for lift-off and landing, but we also visited the cargo hold, where astronauts conduct their space science experiments and store satellites to be dropped off in space.

The two of us who trained to be mission specialists—no one else would—were strapped into the 5DF (5 Degrees of Freedom Chair) which we used to do EVA (extra vehicular activity). The chair, used by the Skylab and Apollo astronauts, simulates the frictionless environment of space and moves you in five different directions.

They tell you that each time you move, you should be reminded of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Which in my case meant that while the "action" was building a solar panel structure, the "reaction" was intense laughter from my son on how inept I was. A space program dependent upon my construction ability would be grounded.

We got a brief taste of the Aviation Challenge camp, which my son thought was the coolest part of the trip. Depending on their ages, kids go through Mach I, Mach II and Mach III classes. It’s like being Chuck Yeager. The kids sit in the cockpit of a fighter jet simulator in a HUD, or a Head Up Display, and fly the plane. (Translation: They look up while they are driving.) The kids loved it and if they had a choice, we would have stayed there the whole trip. We went through a few exercises about dizziness and disorientation, which the kids also loved, except that the boys on the trip were disappointed no one puked.

We also discussed a few key land-sea survival techniques because you never know when you are going to come crashing down in a fighter jet and have to live off the land, right? (Actually, this part fascinated my son, who loves Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet books, where a boy must survive alone in the wilderness after a plane crash.)

The camp is located next to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Museum, a wonderful resource filled with exhibits, an I-MAX theater and lots of rockets. (At Space Camp, kids and parents get to make and fly their own rocket together.) It is home to the Apollo 16 Space Capsule, Mercury and Gemini trainer capsules.

For me, it was a walk back to my childhood, reminding me what it was like to be a little person, thinking about space and astronauts. I still remember the men of the Apollo and how their flights gripped the world. And this camp gave me the chance to share those memories with my son.

We did not stay in the camp facilities. Instead, we stayed next door at the lovely Marriott Huntsville, which has a poolside view of an 11-story tall Saturn 1B rocket and in the distance, the 36-story tall Saturn 5 rocket. Breathtaking.

Both camps cost $349 a person, which does not include airfare to Hunstville. (A quick check of flights to Hunstville show that the going rate is about $355 roundtrip each for a nonstop flight.) The sessions run March through the first weekend in September, although there is a Space Camp session Jan. 13-15.

When we flew down to Alabama, I wasn’t sure what to expect since it was my first visit to the 22nd state in the union.

No, I didn’t hold the stereotypically and insulting notion that everyone totes a Confederate flag around on their pick-up truck.

Frankly, I hadn’t even considered Hunstville. My goal was Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Museum. So, Huntsville, which calls itself the space capital of America, was only a means to an end—our space adventure.

But as we were driven around, I was surprised to find a town I would suggest as a destination on its own. I loved the history, the scenery and the variety of things to do. From Alabama Constitution Villlage, which was a wonderful living history museum that did well drawing the kids in to the chores of everyday life, to the EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, which is top-notch and interactive. I liked this town for the many options it holds for families and the laid-back tone of the place.

My suggestion: Set you and your child up in Space Camp or send your child ahead for a solo camp experience and fly in for the graduation. Spend a night at the Marriott Huntsville. Then, rent a car and take a week. Rent one of the 14 rustic stone cabins at Monte Sano State Park and use it as your base of operations. These two-room cabins are small but open to the great outdoors. You are away from it all with a breathtaking Tennessee Valley view and a chance to see a sky full of southern stars. Yet, the Huntsville restaurants still deliver. Susy Schultz, the mother of Zachary and Bryant, is editor and associate publisher of Chicago Parent.

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