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Getting trained at Space Camp

During a visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., News.com's Daniel Terdiman gets a taste of what this famous program has offered half a million kids.

CNET News.com reporter Daniel Terdiman gets spun around at high speed in a multi-axis trainer at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.--I'm spinning around at high speed, and I'm going in all directions.

You might think it's a state of mind, but it was actually my body doing the spinning, as I was strapped into a multi-axis trainer, a three-ringed device used to demonstrate to participants at Space Camp here one of the things would-be astronauts had to go through to be chosen to be launched into space.

Space Camp, if you're not familiar with it, is an Alabama state program that since 1982 has given more than half a million kids a week of training in what it takes to be an astronaut. I had come here as part of Road Trip 2008, my journey through the South, to see a little bit of what I had been hearing about since my teen years.

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During their week here, kids aged 7 to 18 get a primer in a series of space-related activities, including piloting a space shuttle, running a shuttle mission, repairing a busted satellite, moon walking, and, yes, being spun around with huge force on the multi-axis trainer.

The program here is not just hands-on, however. It also mixes classroom training, all with the goal of teaching kids how to work together, how to make better decisions, and how to lead when under stress.

While the kids may ultimately be most drawn to come here by the prospect of playing astronaut for a week, and two graduates of the program are in NASA's actual astronaut program, those who run Space Camp don't consider their curriculum to be about creating the next generation of visitors to the skies.

"We're not in the business of training astronauts," said Al Whitaker, media relations manager for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which also hosts one of the best collections of authentic U.S. rockets in the world. "That's NASA's job. Our function is that we use that space-science curriculum as a vehicle to get kids interested in math and science."

Indeed, according to materials Space Camp puts out, 93 percent of participants took more science classes after visiting than they had before. And that's important as it is well-documented that American students are, on the whole, less and less interested in the sciences.

If you're older than 18, though, don't fret. Space Camp offers programs for adults, though it's mainly in the realm of corporate team-building workshops. Essentially, it's the same program that the kids go through, but ratcheted up a notch or two in difficulty.

At Space Camp, a group of teens works at a set up made to represent a space shuttle mission control while two of the group pilot the shuttle in a different part of the facility. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"It takes them out of the boardroom and puts them in simulated life or death situations," Whitaker said. "And we hope that they'll perform better afterwards than they used to."

Whitaker told me that there is really only one curriculum for the kids, regardless of their age. But the counselors differentiate the program depending on how old campers are by fine-tuning the software running the exercises they're put through.

An example, Whitaker pointed out, was a space shuttle mission we walked into. This was putting a large group of the oldest kids through the paces of getting a computerized rendition of a shuttle back to Earth. Two of the teens were piloting it and three others were running mission control. The rest of their group was kibbitzing.

When we wandered in, the pilots had managed to upend their shuttle, and it was flying in upside down. The rest of the kids were laughing uproariously.

But the point, Whitaker later explained, is that because this was one of the older groups, they were allowed to maintain complete control over the flying of the shuttle, while the younger kids would have had less autonomy.

One of the things I tried at Space Camp was the one-sixth gravity trainer, which essentially allows you to experience what it's like to walk on the moon. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Later, Whitaker took me into another one of the exercises, in this case a module of the International Space Station. There, a teacher was leading three young kids through some experiments, including one called "superball," which is designed to see how things react under zero gravity conditions, and another to see what happens to various chemical reactions in the same environment.

Back in the room with the multi-axis trainer, I also tried out another exercise, this time something called the one-sixth gravity trainer. This is a contraption that is designed to give you a sense of what it's like to walk on the moon, and I have to say, it's very cool. I strapped in and before I knew it, I was taking huge steps, leaping high into the air with each foot forward.

For many kids, Space Camp is such a good experience that they come back time and time again. Some even come every year. For some, it's their version of summer camp, except with better rockets.

In fact, it's that very idea that led to the creation of Space Camp, Whitaker said. He explained that Wernher von Braun, the leader of the U.S. space program, noted that while there were camps for kids for many other things, there was nothing that taught science. Thus was born one of the most successful state programs in U.S. history.

And why Huntsville? It turns out that von Braun and a coterie of other German scientists ended up here after World War II because of the Redstone Arsenal that is based here. They began working on rocketry and before long, NASA was founded here (see video below).

If Space Camp wasn't here, it's not at all clear that any of the thousands of kids who do some here would have. Whitaker said that the program draws kids and adults alike from all 50 states and many countries. He also said that after September 11, 2001--which happened to be his first day on the job--Space Camp had to figure out how to market itself to families driving in to Huntsville because for many months afterward, airlines weren't letting kids fly alone, something that was and is, once again, a mainstay for the program's attendance figures.

And while most of the kids who come here stay for the full week of training, there are also shorter programs. Packages--which are all-inclusive, except for transportation to Huntsville--run from $399 to $1,600, Whitaker said.

So if you or your kids have a hankering to experience some of the astronaut's life and aren't on the short list to go into space yourselves, you could do worse than showing up here for a day or for a week. Just make sure that you take everything out of your pockets before you get on the multi-axis trainer.