Sarah’s Interstellar Travels

by User Not Found | Nov 06, 2015

"I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.”

Floating in spaceI don’t think I’m wrong in saying that most people would think this sort of career aspiration is reserved for naïve kids or daydreams. Yet my time at the U.S Space and Rocket Center has certainly proven to me that anything is possible.

I still clearly remember the day that I found out about ASG’s International Space Camp competition. I hadn’t even written my application, yet I was filled with excitement at the idea that I could experience space science and astronaut training-things, that have filled me with curiosity and awe ever since I was young. If only I knew that less than six months later I’d have graduated from the International Advanced Space Academy!

The first few weeks leading up to my ‘space odyssey’ consisted of tears of happiness when I found out the good news, surprise and congratulations from my friends, family and teachers and a trip to Melbourne to meet my travelling companions, Nathan, Leroy and ASG NEiTA recipient, Michael Harris. This was followed by media interviews and weekly Skype sessions to prepare as we all counted down to ‘blast off’!

In what seemed like no time at all I was meeting up with Team Australia in Sydney! After more than 20 hours of travelling, we arrived in Huntsville, Alabama to begin our adventure. We arrived late at night, so went straight to the space station-themed ‘Habitat’ (our sleeping quarters) and were briefed on camp arrangements. Nathan and I were drafted into the mighty team Oberth, whilst Leroy was placed in Goddard.

The next morning we met the other international students and began to tour the Space and Rocket Center, which is basically a space theme park! There were exhilarating rides like the Space Shot and the G-force, which gave us a fun taste of the extreme conditions astronauts experience during take-off. We also explored the amazing museums, which had attractions such as rocket and telescope models, a Mars adventure simulator, space travel timelines and more. We were served meals cafeteria-style, and lunch and dinner each day was a different world cuisine (though each had a southern flair!).

That night’s opening ceremony was definitely a highlight, with the teachers and international students dressing in amazing costumes. I wore a ‘Bonzer!’ slang t-shirt, an Aussie cap and thongs to embrace my Queensland culture. After introductions from astronaut Dr. Don Thomas and the US Teachers of the Year, it was time for Team Australia to take the stage with an Aussie gameshow called ‘Thunderstruck’, which the audience loved. My segment was to say a sentence full of Australian slang, and then ask my Austrian contestant to repeat it with hilarious consequences! We were then followed by the interesting presentations of the international delegates from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, India, New Zealand and Norway. The ceremony was then concluded with possibly the most memorable meal I’ve ever had-a delicious Deep South dinner under a Saturn V rocket suspended from the roof!

Sarah space suitSunday morning marked the official beginning of space academy, and after breakfast we were whisked away to the IMAX theatre to watch the Hubble movie. While I was expecting an impressively-proportioned screen, what I didn’t realise was that it was a giant dome around the seats! Later we went over to Aviation Challenge to take part in the ‘Dunker and Lifter’ exercise. The ‘Dunker’ was a ‘helicopter’ shell that, while we sat in it, was dropped into the water so that we had to pull ourselves out feet first and swim to safety. We then were saved from being stranded in the water by the ‘Lifter’, which was a rope-seat attached to a pulley. Later that afternoon we were joined by the rest of our team mates, and went off to mission briefings. We also had an engineering lesson about rocket engines and fuel, the first of a series of lectures on interesting topics such as shuttle systems, the effects of zero gravity on the body and the future of space travel. Later on we were also lucky enough to listen to an inspiring talk from Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, a teacher who was selected to be a part of NASA’s educator astronaut class and then for the crew of STS-131.

The Americans on my team seemed to love having not one, but two Aussies around, and were fascinated by my accent and frequently imitated it (very badly!). We also had many thought-provoking conversations about US politics, culture and the funny differences between our slang (I quickly learnt not to refer to my shoes as thongs!).

Oberth Monday Space CampMonday brought with it the 46th anniversary of the first American moon-landing! After a celebratory toast at breakfast we took the bus back to Aviation Challenge to do some team-building exercises in the harsh 40°C heat. Throughout the week we returned for the challenging zip line and the daunting ‘pamper pole’, a thin 10m tall pole that we had to climb up and then jump off into the air!

We later formed our engineering groups, and due to the fact that my team members were all Harry Potter fans, we named our team the ‘Hippogriffs’. After a lecture on aircraft dynamics, our first challenge was to construct a plane out of only paper and a straw. Our team competed daily in more engineering challenges, such as creating an ablative heat shield for an egg (named Ron, who remained un-boiled!), conducting an experiment on fuel cells, fabricating a spacesuit from unconventional materials for an ‘applenaut’ (who also survived becoming apple crumble) and designing a water filter. Our most important challenge, however, was rocket construction! We designed and built our rocket (named the Firebolt) from scratch, aiming to protect our payload, an egg called Harry. After a few hours of refining, decorating and testing, we launched our two-stage rocket. At first we thought we were unsuccessful as its flight path was on the horizontal-and-into-the-ground side of things, but on inspection our egg survived! On the last night we were surprised to find that our team won the rocket challenge and we graciously accepted our ribbons.

Another major element of the camp were the physical training exercises, including the MAT (Multi-axis trainer), a contraption that simulated a space craft spinning out of control, and the 1/6 gravity chair, which allowed us to feel what it was like to walk on the moon! But our scuba diving session was easily everyone’s favourite activity. After several briefings we geared up to dive in the 7.3m deep tank. We enjoyed the simulated zero-gravity by swimming around like mer-people, playing basketball with bowling balls and even shooting rockets!

International Space Camp teamWhile mission training had begun earlier, our first two one-hour missions took place on Tuesday. For both missions I was situated in Mission Control, in the position of EGIL (Electrical Generation and Illumination Engineer) for mission ‘Alpha’, and then as GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Controls Systems Engineer) for mission ‘Bravo’. In these positions I learnt how to follow the flight plan, fix anomalies on the shuttle, perform orbiter aborts and decipher lots of acronyms! The next day I was posted as Flight Engineer on the ISS (International Space Station) for mission ‘Charlie’, where I learnt the station’s procedures, “exercised” (by teaching everyone the ‘Nutbush’ dance of course!) and undertook experiments. Next, for mission Delta, I was on the shuttle as a Mission Specialist, and got to suit up as an astronaut and performed a spacewalk in a zero-gravity chair.

All this training was leading up to the main goal of Space Academy, our three-hour EDM (Extended Duration Mission). I decided to go back into the position of GNC, where it was my job to check weather conditions, monitor navigational tasks and relay shuttle manoeuvre targets. The objective of our mission was to launch the shuttle, dock with the ISS, switch crews and then successfully land back home.

Everything had been going relatively well up until we rendezvoused with the ISS. While we thought we had docked the shuttle, we had accidentally closed the payload bay doors when they were meant to be open. This meant, to our great sadness, that all of Mission Control and the astronauts ‘died’. In order to revive ourselves, we had to participate in a sort of scavenger hunt. It eventually led to us all singing an embarrassing song whilst doing the Macarena in the cafeteria!

An additional challenge of the EDM was our spontaneous medical issues! The mission got off to an interesting start as one of our engines was faulty and had to be replaced. I volunteered to retrieve the substitute, followed our crew trainer outside and attempted to pick up the paper ‘engine’… big mistake! I was told I had ‘broken my arm’ trying to pick up the massive engine, so I had to howl in pain until the Flight Surgeon fixed my arm (thanks Sam!). It didn’t end there: later Nathan started ‘hallucinating’ and ran over to me and ‘bit’ my broken arm so that it became infected! And with bees loose on the ISS, random cases of deafness, frostbite and the Commander’s fatal heart attack as he was landing the shuttle, we quickly learnt that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong!

As the final day of Space Camp dawned, Space Bowl was well underway! This fun game-show style challenge tested all aspects of our space knowledge. Then all too quickly it was time for our graduation! Team Oberth stood proudly under the Saturn V together as we were presented with our official Advanced Space Academy graduate ‘wings’. After the ceremony concluded we said our emotional goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Space Camp outside swinging

One of the best things about Space Camp was, of course, the friends that I made. It was so amazing to be in a team with such smart, friendly, quirky and outgoing people. I’ll never forget the hilarious jokes, our creative team anthem (Oberth!) and the awesome time we had together.

Space Camp gave me the opportunity to learn about and experience first-hand the things that have inspired me since I was young, and it was, without a doubt, one of the best weeks of my life! I’m not sure what the future has in store for me, but I do know that I will pursue my dream to work in space engineering and to be Australia’s first female astronaut. If there’s one thing that Space Camp taught me, it’s that with enough determination you can accomplish anything. After all, the sky certainly isn’t the limit!

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