From Coal Miner to Astronaut: A Space Camp Experience
The old saying the "Skies the Limit" has taken on new meaning for me since my return from a recent trip to the United States, as its been preparing me for a goal which is just one step higher--Low Earth Orbit.
In a way you could say this new goal is a direct 180 degree reversal for me, as for many years I worked underground as a coal miner. But we all have dreams of wanting to do something better with our lives and I found a way to try and carry mine out?
I have just returned from the state--I live in the United Kingdom, England--after graduating with honors as a student on the Advanced Adult Space Academy Program, which is based at the "Space Camp" facility in Huntsville in Alabama, in the U.S.A.
My journey to Space Camp started over a year before when in January 2004, I applied for, and obtained a place on the Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) Program, based at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and this, along with my previous interest in space, aero-space and scuba diving, gave me the necessary qualifications to apply for, and gain a place on the Advanced Adult Space Academy Programme.
The program is incredible and I recommend it to anyone who wants to experience first hand what it is truly like to spend eight days training under the same conditions NASA astronauts undergo for space shuttle missions. I urge anyone who has a serious interest in space exploration, and who is more interested in a "hand's on" approach, rather then the "look, but don't touch" experience you would get as just a visitor to the Kennedy Space Center or to Space Camp's Museum and Rocket Park. Space Camp is not just a place for the young; it's a place for the young at heart as well. The students which made up our Team Liberty Bell group ranged in age's from mid 40's to late 60's, so don't think early ago and being young is a important factor, its all about commitment, enthusiasm, dedication and the ability to work as part of a team that's important.
The students at the camp have access to a vast array of training facilities and materials and an incredibly dedicated staff team to enable them to learn to do all the right things, in all the right ways.
Whilst all the facilities are quite literally out of this world, one training area stood out for me and my fellow trainees ahead of the rest: The Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, an underwater astronaut training device, is a huge water filled tank. Measuring twenty-nine and half feet across, and with a depth of twenty-four feet, this huge training facility contains an amazing one-hundred and twenty-three thousand gallons of water and is the one area within the programme that allows you to truly experience what it is like to live and work in the same type of conditions that the astronauts experience when in space.
And this is not just an experience that's a quick trip to the bottom of the tank for a look round, followed by a quick trip back to the surface. Not at all, once you get the bottom of the tank there are tasks to be performed following the directions given by a fellow trainee on the surface who acts as your Cap-Com and who talks to you via the communications system which is a part of your helmet. Leading the training in this area is master diver Dana Kersjes, an incredibly dedicated individual who gives her all to ensure that the trainees undergo a training experience they are never likely to forget, whilst at the same time ensuring that the trainees undergo that experience in a safe living and working environment".
The training covers many, many other areas and starts early in the morning and runs until late at night. It was constant pressure and excitement all the way and we got to do some incredible things and meet some incredible people. One of the many incredible things we got to do was meet and talk to Dr Georg Von Tiesenhausen, the designer of the Lunar Rover, which carried the Apollo astronauts over the lunar surface on some of the later missions of the Apollo programme. His lecture on space/time, the solar system and the future of manned space exploration with regard to a trip to Mars was something that inspired everyone in the room to want to be a part space exploration in the future.
From the two training programmes available (Pilot or Mission Specialist) I selected the Mission Specialist programme and let me tell you I was not disappointed with my selection. I got to do some incredible things including been trained to perform EVA's and fix satellites. I would do this either strapped into the harness which is used to simulated a zero gravity environment, strapped onto the Canadarm Arm which was located on our near full size space shuttle training simulator, or whilst strapped into the Manned Manoeuvring Unit or MMU I was trained to operate.
All the training we undertook whilst at the camp led us towards one goal--the LDM or Long Duration Mission, which lasted for us for 24 hours. During this mission I would get to carry out two EVA's outside the shuttle simulator, lasting in durations from one and half, to two and half hours. As part of a third EVA I would act as on-board Cap-Com directing two of my fellow trainees whilst they performed a task outside the confines of the shuttle simulator.
As one of my fellow trainees would say over and over again "It just keep's getting better and better" and believe me it did. If you want an experience that's as close to "going-up" as its ever going to get, then Space Camp is the place to find it.
NOTE:The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.
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