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Summer Fun at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama

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By Sebastian Motes

Editor’s Note: Sebastian Motes is 13 years old. He is a cadet on STARFLEET’s USS Columbia, a Boy Scout, a STEM Scout, and a member of several other organizations. He is also a dual-enrolled student at Austin Peay State University and the Middle College at Austin Peay State University. He is concurrently working toward high school and university graduation, and would like to pursue a career in electrical and mechanical engineering. In 2016, he was awarded scholarships to attend two camps at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The Army Aviation Association of America-Tennessee Valley Chapter sponsored his attendance at Aviation Challenge-MACH II, and STARFLEET Region 1 sponsored his attendance at Space Academy. He attended both camps in August, and this article describes his experiences.

My Experience at Aviation Challenge-MACH II

I had an amazing experience at the military-style Aviation Challenge camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) in Huntsville, Alabama. I participated in the MACH II section of the camp.

Day 1

On the first day, the trainees were divided into teams, given call signs (nicknames), and given Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs). My team’s name was “PPG,” named after one of the camp’s sponsors, PPG Industries, a company known for manufacturing aircraft windshields and windows. I was given the call sign “Crab” because when my team met me, they thought about Sebastian the Crab from the Disney movie The Little Mermaid. We were informed that, throughout camp, each trainee would be required to wear his or her BDU the majority of the time.

Later in the day, we learned about parade rest, which is a military stance in which one keeps hands joined behind one’s back with thumbs interlocked. In this stance, one must also maintain a straightforward gaze while remaining silent and still unless otherwise instructed. We were told when to execute the stance throughout the remainder of camp. We also learned the basics about aircraft, including the four main forces acting on them: lift, thrust, drag, and weight. In addition, we reviewed the history of how aircraft technology has changed over the years.

We also explored an outdoor activity center known as “Area 51.” Here, my team was split into two groups. The group to which I was assigned completed two activities. The first activity was quite challenging. Using only ropes, we were required to transfer three tennis balls from one bucket to another. We were not allowed to touch the buckets or balls. To solve this problem, we tied taut-line hitches made from two ropes around the bucket containing the balls. Afterward, two people stood across from one another and tightly pulled the ropes while simultaneously twisting them in the same direction to tilt the bucket and release the balls into the other bucket. For the second activity, the group was required to balance on a big lever while alternately sitting and standing. During the standing balance, the group was further required to sing and do the motions to the song “I’m a Little Teapot.”

In the evening, we saw an IMAX film called A Beautiful Planet. This film depicted what it is like to live and work on the International Space Station (ISS), what Earth looks like from space, and what we should do to help protect our planet for future generations.

Day 2

On the second day, we learned more formation stances and positions, including fall in, fall out, present arms, order arms, attention, at ease, left face, right face, and about face. We were also introduced to the daily protocols of living in military-style barracks. Wake-up time was 6:30 A.M. We were required to fix our beds so that they were uniform before we left for breakfast. To do this, we were required to put all personal belongings, not including our suitcases, into our lockers next to our beds so that no personal items were visible in the living space. Each trainee was also required to make “hospital corners” on his or her bed, and had to ensure that the blanket was pulled tight so that there were no wrinkles and so that a ball could be bounced on the bed.

Later, we were introduced to flight simulators designed specifically for Aviation Challenge. Using these simulators, we learned the basics of how to operate the joystick and throttle, and then practiced flying and landing F-18 fighter jets. We also learned how to shoot missiles, drop bombs, and fire bullets. The next activity involved patrolling in the woods. For this activity, my team selected me to be Lead 1, which is a position that checks for enemies when crossing a road while patrolling. After patrolling in the woods, everyone went rafting and swimming in the facility’s man-made lake.

Day 3

On the third day, we continued to explore the flight simulators. We learned about radars and how to get different views such as “air-to-air” and “air-to-ground.” Using our radars to lock onto targets, we refined our use of missiles, bombs, and bullets. We were later assigned to secret combat missions against an opponent team. My team was tasked with stopping an opponent force known as “Liber8,” a responsibility that would require completion of an exciting multi-day series of well-planned missions involving bombing enemy bases and shooting down enemy aircraft.

Later on, my team learned about wilderness survival and basic first aid treatment. After that, each person on my team was able to take a ride in a Barney Chair, which is a spinning chair that simulates what it feels like to fly a fighter jet.

In the evening, we went covertly patrolling in the woods on a mission to take out all enemy guards without being captured. To take out a guard, a trainee had to come out of hiding, sneak up on the guard, and touch both of the guard’s shoulders without being spotted. By the end of the mission, about half of my team had been captured and the rest of the team was still hiding.

Day 4

On the fourth day, my team was able to ride Aviation Challenge’s two-person centrifuge. During the ride, a light would turn on periodically and each trainee would have to press a button beside his or her seat to keep the centrifuge spinning. This mechanism, along with a red emergency button located between the two seats, provided the option for a trainee to stop the centrifuge if needed.

In the afternoon, we went swimming again in the man-made lake. My team was also given the opportunity to go on two water-related simulators. The first one was a helicopter water crash simulator in which trainees sat in a helicopter fuselage that was then lowered into the water. As water filled the fuselage, the team swam out to safety via open windows. The next simulator replicated a helicopter water rescue operation. Trainees had to stand in the lake and each of us was assigned pretend injuries. The team had to help an injured individual get inside a safety net, which was then raised to a platform via a motorized pulley system. Trainees were hoisted up one by one until the entire team had experienced the simulator.

Afterward, we returned to the flight simulators to complete a bombing mission and an air-to-air shoot-down mission. Then, we went to a survival training lesson during which we discussed what is safe to eat and drink in the wilderness, how to find water and filter it, and how to set up traps and hunt if necessary. After eating dinner, we practiced building and maintaining a fire for an upcoming fire competition to be held the following day.

In the evening, my team participated in a Search & Rescue mission. Our first mistake was killing our Pilot, who we thought was an enemy guard. After that, we ran into the enemy, who had stolen secret files that we were required to retrieve, and nearly everyone on my team was captured. A few people, including the Assistant Patrol Leader, were able to hide, but as time passed they were picked off one by one until only the Assistant Patrol Leader was left. While several captured team members distracted the enemy guard by talking to her, the Assistant Patrol Leader managed to get behind a tree located next to the guard. Shortly thereafter, she was able to take out the guard, free the team, and retrieve the stolen files. We had nearly finished our mission when we ran out of time.

Before returning to the barracks, we participated in an airplane building activity. Each person was given a Styrofoam plate, a penny, tape, scissors, a Sharpie marker, and a template. Construction was limited to these materials, but the template could be modified if desired. Once each person was finished building his or her plane, we tested them outside. The tests turned into a competition, and on the final try, my plane came in second place.

Day 5

In the morning, the Top Gun competition was held in the flight simulators. This competition involved trainees fighting against each other, one-on-one, in a tournament to see who was the most skilled. A point system was used to determine the winner of each round. If a trainee actually saw the opponent aircraft flying (not just displayed on the radar) and he or she said, “Tally-Ho,” then he or she would receive a point. If a trainee was flying behind the opponent, he or she was required to say, “Alpha-Whisky” to request permission to shoot. If he or she did not say the phrase, or permission was denied and he or she shot anyway, points would be deducted. The trainee who lost a round would be eliminated from the tournament, and the winning trainee would face another opponent in the next round, until a final winner was declared.

Later, we did a scavenger hunt searching for tagged poles using a map and compass. This was an exciting activity that helped me improve my survival skills. After that, the teams had a formation competition based on the commands we had learned. My team was coordinated and did pretty well.

Before lunch, we got a chance to ride the Space Shot and G-Force Accelerator simulators. The Space Shot propelled us vertically 140 feet in 2.5 seconds putting 4 Gs of force on our bodies (the equivalent of four times the force of gravity on Earth), then allowed a 2-second sensation of out-of-seat weightlessness before beginning a 1 G free fall. The G-Force Accelerator spun us in a circle for several minutes as we stood against the walls of the simulator, causing 3 Gs of force to push on our bodies. These rides were both exhilarating!

In the evening, the fire competition was held. Each team had to divide all of its trainees into three groups, which included gatherers, fire builders, and fire lighters. I was one of the fire builders. We successfully built a stable log cabin fire structure, but were unfortunately not able to light the structure using five or less matches as required by the rules.

During the night, we did two activities. These activities were Seal Ops and Escape & Evasion. The Seal Ops mission was similar to the Search & Rescue mission except that we had to plant bombs on military fighter aircraft instead of retrieving stolen files. My team was assigned to plant bombs on the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite aircraft. Working together, all of the teams successfully planted bombs on the assigned aircraft and eliminated all of the enemy guards.

The next activity, Escape & Evasion, required crawling through the woods without being captured by an enemy guard. Before the activity, each trainee was given a coin. If a trainee was captured once, he or she had to give the coin to an enemy guard and was then allowed to escape. If captured twice, the trainee was detained for the remainder of the exercise. Escape & Evasion was an intense but fun experience, and at the end of the activity, each team’s unforfeited coins were tallied to determine which team had the best performance.

Day 6

This was the last day of Aviation Challenge, and it consisted of packing up personal belongings and attending the graduation ceremony. At the ceremony, Colonel Jerry L. Ross, an American astronaut who went on seven missions in space, totaling 58 days, 0 hours, and 52 minutes, gave a short inspirational speech about leadership and teamwork and then congratulated all of the trainees. After that, he passed out certificates, accepted each graduate by turning his or her name patch right-side-up (as the patches had to be worn upside down throughout training), and shook hands with the graduates.

After camp, I attended a luncheon with Colonel Ross. During the luncheon, he gave a presentation in which he discussed his reactions during his first trip to space and showed the attendees clips of goofy activities and stunts that he and his team had completed. Colonel Ross also signed copies of his book Spacewalker: My Journey to Space and Faith as NASA's Record-setting Frequent Flyer for the attendees.


Overall, Aviation Challenge was a fun experience that emphasized discipline, teamwork, and leadership. The camp provided a challenging week of adventures and allowed me to enhance my skills in many areas. In addition, the camp activities enabled me to complete Boy Scout requirements for my Aviation merit badge, plus most requirements for the Wilderness Survival merit badge.

My Experience at Space Academy

I had the incredible privilege of attending the Space Academy camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) in Huntsville, Alabama. This camp built upon my experiences at Aviation Challenge camp, which I had attended during the prior week.

Day 1

On the first day, all of the trainees were assigned to teams. My team’s name was “Boeing,” named after the company known for manufacturing aircraft, rockets, and satellites. Shortly thereafter, we were given a tour of the Space Academy facilities.

Later in the day, we saw an IMAX film called A Beautiful Planet. Although I had seen this film previously at Aviation Challenge camp, a second viewing allowed me to gain additional insight about paying attention to the environment and avoiding harmful activities that may pollute and destroy Earth.

In the evening, we went to the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, a museum that houses the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle. This gigantic rocket is displayed horizontally and is elevated so that visitors can walk underneath it. In addition, the rocket stages are separated and the engines are exposed so that the various components can be easily viewed. The Davidson Center also houses numerous other interesting exhibits, including the Apollo 12 Mobile Quarantine Facility, an Apollo 12 moon rock, the Apollo 16 Command Module, an Apollo 16 recovery parachute, and a Skylab solar array, to name a few. Near the end of our visit, we reviewed a brief history of space exploration with an extremely helpful member of the museum staff.

Day 2

On the second day, we got up at 8:00 A.M. and did physical training (PT) under the space shuttle exhibit at Shuttle Park before heading off to breakfast. Later, we went to Rocket Park, a location that houses twenty-seven missiles and rockets, where we were given a tour and then quizzed on our ability to identify each exhibit. After that, we went on the G-Force Accelerator. Even though I had experienced this simulator previously while attending Aviation Challenge camp, I still enjoyed it.

Later, we toured the NASA grant-funded featured exhibition ISS: Science on Orbit, which includes two mockups of International Space Station modules with numerous full-scale replicas of equipment and supplies necessary to live and work in space. This gave us an idea of what to expect for our missions. Not long after that, we did team building exercises and trained for our first mission. During that mission, I was the Flight Director. The Flight Director is part of Mission Control, which is a ground-based communications facility. We were given transcripts to follow that listed commands for us to speak and outlined what to press or monitor on the computers in front of us. This was a realistic and fun simulation of a NASA mission.

Later on, we went to a room with rocket parts and divided into groups. Each group had to design and build a rocket. My group designed our rocket to be tall and aerodynamic. The groups were informed that we would build the rockets the following day.

In the evening, my team was assigned the job of making plans for constructing a colony on the moon. We developed plans for food, oxygen, and water supply as well as industrial facilities that would need to be built. In addition, we developed a budget that would be required for constructing the colony, and prepared a presentation that we would deliver to all the Space Academy trainees a few days later.

Day 3

Once again, we got up at 8:00 A.M. and did PT under the space shuttle exhibit. After breakfast, we went swimming in the on-site man-made lake where we played an extreme game of Marco Polo. After swimming, we built our rockets from the designs that we had developed the previous day. However, my group had to redesign our rocket so that the center of mass was in the middle so that the rocket would perform correctly. My group ended up naming our rocket “Apocalypse” since it was the tallest rocket out of all the groups. We were told that we would launch the rockets the following day.

Next, we went to a presentation about Newton’s Three Laws. There were interactive scenarios for which trainees were invited to come up and complete a task in order to test a particular law. I went up with two other trainees to do an activity testing Newton’s second law which states, “Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object)” [Reference: TeacherTECH website; Link:]. The task was to use a straw to repeatedly blow a cup of pennies to the opposite side of a table, with more pennies added on each successive attempt. This exercise was easy for me. I was able to blow the cup across the table, even when the instructor put all of the pennies in the cup, but the other two trainees had trouble blowing the cup once more than thirty pennies were added. The demonstration confirmed that when a force is exerted upon an object to move it, the amount of force must be increased as mass is added.

In the evening, we trained on the 1/6th Gravity Chair, which is designed to simulate the lower level of gravity on the moon. I found that while it was easy to move up-and-down, it was quite difficult to move side-to-side or backward-and-forward. After this activity, we went to a fascinating presentation about the constellations and the life cycle of stars. Finally, before bed, we played an amusing game of Poison Dart Frog.

Day 4

On the fourth day, we once again did PT in the morning under the space shuttle exhibit. After breakfast, we went to two presentations. The first presentation was about astronaut suit durability. We tested various space glove prototypes using special equipment. Some of the qualities we investigated were maneuverability, protection against space debris, protection against pressure, protection against radiation, and protection against extreme temperatures. Although none of the test gloves would be suitable for actual use in the field, we got an idea of what factors must be considered when a space glove is being designed. The second presentation covered various commercial space businesses including each company’s current positions and future goals. The companies that were discussed included SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Blue Origin, and Bigelow Aerospace.

After the presentations, our second mission was conducted. Before the actual mission, however, we practiced our roles. This mission happened to be our most successful mission out of the three that we completed. During this mission, I was assigned to be Commander of the space shuttle Explorer. My role was to execute the operations listed in my manual once I received commands from Mission Control. When anomalies came up, the Pilot or I informed Mission Control by saying, “Houston, we have a problem,” and then waited for follow-up instructions from Mission Control. In addition, I was in charge of landing the shuttle, which I did successfully. Apparently, I was one of the few people over the years that had actually landed the shuttle on the runway. I was told that most trainees who take the role of Commander end up landing the shuttle in the water or in one of the fields. This was my favorite mission, as it allowed me to further develop my teamwork and problem solving skills.

After our mission, we went on the G-Force Accelerator again and also explored another simulator, the Bullet Spaceship. The Bullet Spaceship is a neat ride that incorporates a capsule that moves in sync with video it displays to make the scenario seem realistic. After this, we went to launch our rockets. My group’s rocket shot up about 75 feet off the ground before the engine shot out causing the rocket to go a few feet horizontally, curve at its peak, and then land into the ground like a dart. Fortunately, the rocket was not damaged. After everyone launched their rockets, we went back to redesign them for a second launch scheduled for the next day. My group decided to add more weight to the front and to add two extra fins that were about twice the size of the original fins.

One of the last things we did on this day was to try out the Multi-Axis Trainer (MAT). The MAT is a giant gyroscope that simulates a tumble spin in space. The cool thing about this simulator is that when a trainee rides it, he or she is not likely to get sick because his or her stomach remains centered in the gyroscope. Furthermore, the trainee should not get dizzy since the MAT does not spin more than twice consecutively in the same direction (so the trainee’s inner ear fluid should not shift).

Day 5

Once again, we woke up early and did PT under the space shuttle exhibit. But, this was the last time for PT, which was a welcome relief! After breakfast, we saw a presentation about exoplanets. It reviewed various types of exoplanets, how they get their names, and methods that scientists use to find them. This presentation suggested that there may potentially be many life-bearing planets in the universe. After that, we went to a presentation and experiment regarding thermal heat tiles. The experiment involved developing and testing shields to prevent glue from melting off a stick when heated. Trainees were able to use materials such as bronze screen, aluminum screen, and aluminum foil in their prototypes. The experiment was interesting and demonstrated that metal could effectively conduct heat away from the glue so that the glue would not melt.

For our final mission, I was Scientist 1 and Mission Specialist 1. During the practice run of the mission, we learned how to use a keypad to solve anomalies and we learned where all the materials for experiments are kept. As Scientist 1, I performed an experiment using Borax and another chemical to produce a bouncy ball. As Mission Specialist 1, I followed written procedures in a manual and instructed the Commander how to land the shuttle. When the Commander overshot the runway, I told her to pull up and try again. Instead of pulling up, however, she pushed down and dived right into the ground, thinking that is what I’d meant. This mission became a highlight at Space Academy for such a funny crash.

Later on, we relaunched our rockets. This time, my group’s rocket soared about 100 feet before reaching its peak. Then, it turned toward the ground and the engine shot out, making it go double the speed. The parachute failed to deploy and the rocket landed into the ground like a dart. Due to the fast rate of descent, the middle part collapsed and one of the fins detached.

Next, we rode the Space Shot simulator again. Before the day was over, we saw an astronaut present about her journey to space. Shortly afterward, my team presented our lunar colony plans to the other Space Academy trainees and received a loud round of applause.

Day 6

This was the last day of Space Academy. After packing up our personal belongings and cleaning, all trainees participated in the Space Bowl, a trivia competition focusing on what we learned during our time at Space Academy. My team ended up winning first place.

The camp concluded with a graduation ceremony. At the ceremony, Captain Wendy B. Lawrence, an American astronaut who was the first female graduate of the United States Naval Academy to fly into space, and who went on four missions in space totaling 51 days, 3 hours, and 56 minutes, delivered a short inspirational speech about pursuing our dreams, and then congratulated all of the trainees. Afterward, she passed out certificates, accepted each graduate by turning his or her name patch right-side-up (as the patches had to be worn upside down throughout training), and shook hands with the graduates.

After camp, I attended a luncheon with Captain Lawrence. During the luncheon, she gave a presentation in which she discussed what it was like to be in space and how it affected her life. She also signed copies of her official NASA photograph for attendees.


Overall, Space Academy was a fun experience that emphasized problem solving, teamwork, and leadership. This camp provided several challenging adventures and allowed me to enhance my skills in various areas. In addition, the camp activities enabled me to complete Boy Scout requirements for my Space Exploration and Astronomy merit badges.

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