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February 2002

Space Camp for vision impaired students

By Deb Lewis,
Co-ordinator, Statewide Vision Resource Centre.

Bernie reads the controls in the space station, that were labelled in Braille.

"I was excited before
but now I am past excitement!

This conveys the sense of anticipation with which seven 15-17 year olds from a variety of Victorian schools looked forward to two weeks in the United States visiting Los Angeles and the Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama during the week held especially for students who are blind or vision impaired.

During the first week in the United States, we recovered from the flight and visited Disneyland and California World. One student commented, "We went on so many scary rides that I don't feel scared of anything any more". It was a thrill to meet most of the Disney characters when our group was invited to take part in the evening parade.

Once we arrived at Space Camp our team, with 150 other students with vision impairments from Mexico, Canada, Scotland and the US, started their training to be astronauts. They were divided into teams of 15 and participated in the same type of training that real astronauts practise before a mission.

Students attended lectures including the history of spaceflight, astronomy, rocketry. In the NASA Museum they saw the Command Module which took Neil Armstrong to the moon and back. In the IMAX cinema they saw footage of real astronauts in space, and life in a space station.

There were some sessions dedicated just to team-building exercises. To experience weightlessness students learnt to SCUBA dive and performed repairs to equipment at the bottom of an 8m tank. One of our girls who is blind and has a hearing impairment said after spending 20 minutes underwater:

"I'll remember SCUBA-diving for my whole life."

Other comments about training utilising the specialized equipment were:

Peggy in the multi-axis trainer.

"The multi-axis trainer which spins you
in all different directions was fun and you didn't feel sick."

"I liked the moving chair on a giant spring that supported you. You felt you were walking on the moon with one-sixth the gravity."

"Trying on an astronaut suit was painful. The helmet was so heavy it hurt my shoulders."

In three one-hour practice missions the students worked in three different settings: Mission Control, the Space Station and the Orbiter, communicating through headsets and microphones. They performed experiments, repaired equipment and flew the orbiter, listening to others giving instructions from Mission Control. The books of instructions they read to operate the orbiter were in large print or braille. One student said on her return to school, "I want to learn more braille, it was so useful at Space Camp".

The trainee astronauts learnt to deal with system malfunctions and accidents such as a broken leg. By the final six-hour mission they were competent at handling any problem they encountered. One commented, "I had to rely on other people and we really learnt to work as a team".

For many students, the final six-hour mission was the highlight. Comments included:

"I was part of the Payload Specialist track who are the scientists and doctors of the mission. My specific position was the Space Station Principle Investigator in Mission Control. My job was to communicate with the Space Station and help their crew solve buzzer and medical anomalies. I was also required to attend to medical anomalies in Mission Control. Among dealing with an epileptic fit and an electric shock I managed to help others overcome difficulties with communication breakdowns."

"My task was to repair a hole in the spacecraft caused by asteroids colliding with the craft. The repair was necessary to prevent the escape of pressurized oxygen from the craft. We also had to perform experiments. There was one experiment which I did where I had to make a polymer which I thought was really funny, because it was a really weird material. I haven't seen anything quite like it. Basically, it was very hard, but jelly like, which appeared to be a solid, but if you walked away, it would be all spread out in a big puddle."

Jake dressed in flight suit, worn whilst on missions (similar to blue overalls).

"The missions were the best part
   . . . because we worked together.

The students were all very proud to graduate but sad that they had to leave their new friends. Back at school their feelings were:

"I want to study more about science and astronomy and work in a space-related industry."

"Not only did I learn about people and science, Area 51 a team-building course of activities helped me improve leadership and communication skills."

"The best part was trying different things you wouldn't normally do."

"I don't want to watch much TV anymore. We became the best of friends with kids from all over the world. I'm emailing all of them this week so I can keep up these friendships."

"Despite my attempts no one will ever be able to understand the fun that our group of Aussie travellers and our three outstanding chaperones had when we went on the adventure of a life time."

We are very grateful to everyone who supported this event. Lives have been changed in many ways because of it. We can see increased self-confidence and self-esteem, greater willingness to take risks and try new activities, an appreciation of the value of teamwork and an easier acceptance of their impairments. There were many other individual benefits to the young people who participated in the adventure, including wonderful memories and new friendships.

Bernadette, Bryony, Jake, Kate, Michael, Peggy, Tim.

Space Camp Chaperones:
Marion Blazé, Deb Lewis, Janie McLeod.

Bry in her flight suit with Aussie flag.

Find out more!

Further information, photos and reports can be found online, including:

See more Space Camp photos from students all around the world on the Texas School for the Blind website. Plus, photos and a personal report from Space Camper Michael, on the Maroondah SC website (follow the links to "An Outer Space Experience").

If you would like to support the students who wish to attend Space Camp 2002: please contact Deb Lewis or (+613 / 03) 9841 0242.

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