January/February 1989
By Jim Calio
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark Director of Photography: David Hume Kennedy


Mary Ellen Mark has photographed people as different as Roy Cohn and Mother Teresa, and places as diverse as Ethiopia and Miami. Her work has appeared in galleries all over the world and in almost every major magazine. Among her many grants and awards are the Leica Medal of Excellence, The Phillipe Halsman Award for Photojournalism, and the World Press Award. Her books include Falkland Road, about prostitutes in Bombay; Ward 81, about women in a mental hospital; and Passport, a collection of portraits from around the world. Her latest, Streetwise, has just been published by University of Pennsylvania Press.

In which our writer and other grown-ups experience three-and-a-half days of excitement and instruction and get to be astronauts.

Space camper Lorie Volk goes for a spin.

America held its breath back in 1961 when Alan Shepard took our hopes and dreams with him into space in the first Mercury rocket.

And in 1969, the eyes of the world were clamped on Neil Armstrong as he eased himself down onto the almost weight­less surface of the moon.

Now it's 1988, and it's my turn. Of course, I've dreamed of it secretly for years, never imagining that it would actually happen. I've trained for it. And now I'm doing it. I'm here tethered to my gleaming white space shuttle only by a thin lifeline and by my overwhelming determination to complete my mission and get home safely. In front of me is the task at hand: repairing a malfunctioning communications satellite. Over my shoulder behind me is the limitless darkness of unending, unforgiving space.

Trying to run the power drill with my heavy gloves and cumbersome suit is hard, frustrating work. The satellite's tiny screws seem to be fixed in concrete. Suddenly I feel a tugging on my leg. I look down.

An elderly lady is shouting, "Can I help you, dear?" She is one of a crowd of tourists watching my clumsy performance as a weekend astronaut at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, just some 600 feet above sea level.

Back in 1970, Dr. Wernher von Braun, the German‑born rocket scientist who is credited with getting the United States space program off the ground after World War II, reasoned that if Americans sent their kids to camp to learn Old Frontier skills (camping, canoeing, woodcraft), why shouldn't there be a camp where people could go to experience and learn skills relevant to the Final Frontier? A camp where you can learn about spacecraft.

Twelve years later, in 1982, von Braun's vision was finally realized when a 70,000‑square-foot, $4.5 million Training Center and Museum was opened. Since its debut, Space Camp has been host to more than 40,000 space campers.

Space campers come from all over the country and all over the world. Among my 35 fellow campers were several teachers; a Tennessee cardiologist; a secretary who works for NASA; a Japanese computer specialist; a California highway patrolman; and two journalists from Austria.

"The closest I've ever come to anything like this was watching reruns of Star Trek," Sharon Inouye, a lawyer from California, explained. "Then I saw the movie 'Spacecamp.' It was great. I called up Space Camp immediately and said, 'Beam me up, Scotty.

When Silicon Valley executive Kim Witter turned 40, he experienced a rather hyperactive mid‑life crisis. "I wanted to jump out of planes and fly jets," he says. "So my wife gave me this as a Christmas present."

For some, the intention is more serious. John Rogers, a 40‑year‑old geologist from Texas, has applied to NASA for the space shuttle program three times, and he intends to try again. "I guess you could call me a grounded astronaut, " says the Air Force Vietnam vet.

Space Camp's director, Deborah Barnhart, grew up around Huntsville. She worked in the Space Mu­seum, and in the U.S. Navy as a surface warfare officer. Now she's back home in what she calls a dream job. "Space Camp not only gives people a chance to see what it's like to be an astronaut; it also helps them appreciate all the components of the space program. They learn you don't have to be the commander or the pilot to be a very, very important part of it. They can learn a lot about space. And about themselves."

Space camper Shin‑ichi Suzuki attempts an emergency satellite repair.

Most of the space campers stay in Space Habitat, a dormitory designed like a space station, made up of cylindrical structures that resemble four potato chip containers stacked side by side. The rooms have bunk beds‑remember, it's camp‑and all facilities are communal. I meet my roommates: an investigator for New York state, and a house builder from New Hampshire.

We fill in forms and take tests to see which jobs we're best suited for on the mission into space that we will be mounting over the next three days. My comparative ignorance of scientific things proves that I am most qual­ified to be the public affairs officer (PAO, in the acronymic jargon NASA loves), the guy who does the countdown and announces the results of the mission to the waiting world. Everybody gets two jobs, so I'll also be a mission specialist. This means I will don a spacesuit and attempt to repair the damaged satellite.

Papers completed, I zip up my sharp‑looking standard NASA‑issue slate blue flight suit and get ready for my first taste of flying high. I'm strapped into the MMU, or manned maneuvering unit. This is a big white cherry picker that protrudes from the cargo bay of the shuttle and is used for making repairs in space.

I jerk one of the switches and instantly I am about 50 feet off the floor. And I mean instantly. I remember suddenly that I don't like heights. I'm beginning to panic. Don't worry, I tell myself. It 's perfectly safe. It's camp. But it's also undeniably a long way down to the concrete floor. So, very, very gingerly, just like a real astronaut, I concentrate on working the switch to bring me down slowly and gently. I've already learned a lesson about calm and control.

Everyone is up and out early the first morning for our work in the shuttle simulator. We're going to use this exact replica of the shuttle's cockpit to practice "landings." Sit­ting at the controls, with the simulator pitching and yawing like the real thing, and a videotape of the actual landing approach running on a screen outside the window, it's as close as you can get without being there.

Unfortunately, my initial throttle technique is a little exuberant, and the instructor tells me that I've just crashed headlong into the runway.

Undaunted, I tell him that practice will make perfect.



Campers shake, rattle, and roll in training for a simulated shuffle launch.

Georgina Gower lives in New York City, but for the moment she seems lest in space.

Then it's off to the maneuvering pod, one of the contraptions they use for simulating weightlessness. This a long, upright tube with a round capsule inside it. "It's kind of like being one of the balls in the Lotto pick," says one fellow camper, and that's exactly what it's like. You strap yourself inside the ball, which is then pushed up to the top of the tube by a powerful blast of air. After being suspended at the top for a few moments, you experience a free‑fall when the air is suddenly cut off. Before you hit the bottom, the air starts again and your fall is cushioned.

After lunch I walk over to the Space Museum. It's worth the price of a ticket to Huntsville in itself. You can stand right next to the Mercury capsule that took one of the original astronauts, Walter Schirra, into space. This isn't a simulation or a mock‑up. This one actually went up and came back. It's an awesome thought: This thing was there.

Mission control directs a simulated shuttle mission.

Would‑be astronauts take a shuffle ride.

The training center floor has a full‑size mock‑up of the shuffle.

Before bed everyone gets to take a spin ‑literally‑ in the multi‑axis trainer. This is a neat little torture chamber in which they strap you to a seat and whirl you around in every direction so you can see what it's like when your spaceship is out of control. As I noted after a few minutes' re­covery, Balance, coordination, sense of humor, and a strong, empty stomach are all it really takes."

All campers spend some time in the one‑sixth gravity trainer, which approximates the nearly weightless conditions on the moon. It's a long pole with a seat attached to the end. With a counselor carefully holding on to make sure you don't go smack into a wall, you move across the floor with enormously high, swooping hops‑like a kangaroo in slow motion.

The most dreaded machine of all is the centrifuge, which recreates the force of 3Gs. (Three times the force of gravity is what astronauts feel when they actually blast off from Earth.) "Sit on the outside or you won't feel a thing," someone tells me. So I sit on the outside, and I nearly pass out. You can't lift your arms or your legs; they feel like lead. And if you try to move your head, the room begins to swim and you feel nauseous. The real‑life astronauts say that nausea is common during the first few days in space; if that's true, the centrifuge is commendably realistic training.

All the training is meant to prepare us for our simulated mission. We're going to launch a shuttle, repair a satellite, and bring everybody back safely.

There are, of course, some unexpected emergencies with which we have to deal whether or not they're in the script. A main engine cuts oil prematurely. There's a fire in the shuttle cargo bay. The oxygen supply in the main cabin runs dangerously low. The weather won't permit the planned landing.

Meanwhile, the three astronauts who are suited up for their morning space walk (in NASAese, an extravehicular activity, or EVA) are having problems. It's extremely difficult to move around in the heavy gear, and when you're strapped into a bucket seat that's moving in different directions, it's even harder. (There are also some more basic problems. "I looked down and noticed that my moon boots were coming off. I thought I was going to explode in space!" said Georgina Gower, a data communications saleswoman from New York.)

In the afternoon, I am one of the astronauts who attempts the EVA to fix that pesky satellite. My spacesuit is too small and my moon boots don't fit so I have to wear my Reeboks; and, of course, the satellite is only a metal cylinder attached to a wall unit. But we're all really into it, and talking to my fellow astronauts back on board the shuttle and to my capcom (capsule communications officer) at mission control, damned if I don't get the feeling this is the real thing.

The end of the three days is marked by a ceremony awarding certificates ("Best Camper," "Right Stuff," etc.), diplomas, and handshakes from the Space Camp staff.

"I want to be an astronaut," says business student Dee McCollough. "My fiancé is dead set against it, but I'm going to ease him into it."

"I have the dream," says Janice Chandler, a nurse from New Jersey. "There'll be a need for trained nurses, especially if we start living in space stations or on the moon."

"I've learned a lot about myself," says Georgina Gower. "When you ask most people who they'd like to be on Star Trek, they'll say Captain Kirk, not the others. You always want to be the pilot or the copilot. But I've enjoyed myself being part of a team."

Soon it's back to jobs, kids, families and the responsibilities of earthbound life. But everyone agreed it was fun to be in camp. "After all," said one as he headed home, "we are all children of the space age."