A Mother-Daughter Trip to Space (Camp, That Is)

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

My nine year-old daughter, Zoe, is commanding a mission to the International Space Station. I’m her second-in-command, the flight’s pilot, so I am in charge of making sure the shuttle arrives and docks safely. It’s a tall task, one that takes detailed and precise communication with Mission Control and careful manipulation of all kinds of buttons and levers. Luckily, we’ve been well-trained: the counselors at Space Camp have prepared us for anomalies that could arise during our space flight adventure.

Of course, we’re not actually flying through space, even though we are wearing orange flight suits just like the ones astronauts wear. But it sure feels like we are, especially when bells and whistles start blaring and lights start flashing to tell us that we’ve got a problem, just as we can see on the screen in front of us, which is lit up with stars. Solving problems in space flight is the highlight of our Space Camp experience, and I’ve never seen Zoe so happy. In fact, two days into our three-day mother-daughter Space Camp adventure, she’s already begging to come back to Huntsville, Alabama next summer, this time on her own.

This program is a special one at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center here in Huntsville – it’s a long weekend experience designed just for parents and children aged 7-12. For my daughter, who’s not yet quite ready to head off for overnight camp on her own, it’s perfect; she gets all the fun of learning about science and the space program while having me sleeping right beside her in our bunk in the camper’s funky, futuristic dorm. This same dorm houses kids from all over the country, even the world, most of whom are enrolled in week-long space and aviation camps for kids from ages 9-17.

Most of these programs are much like the one in which we’re participating (but longer). Over the course of three days, we build and launch our own rockets; try out space travel simulators; take not one, but two, missions to the International Space Station (playing different roles for each); participate in secret activities (designing new components of the ISS for the kids, and designing a mission path (over margaritas at a nearby hotel bar) for the adults); learn more than you can imagine about the history of the space program; and compete in a “Space Bowl,” or Jeopardy! like competition in which four parent/child teams are pitted against each other to answer questions about space trivia.

It’s a great bonding experience for my daughter and me, and it’s also really fun to watch her get to know the other kids on Team Shuttle, our group of six kids and six adults. These mini-astronauts are about as different as space is infinite, ranging from a tiny freckled girl here with her grandmother to a young autistic boy experiencing space with his mom. Zoe finds something to like about each kid, demonstrating that Space Camp does a great job achieving one of its objectives: teamwork and team bonding. As for the parents? We’re exhausted – racing through space museums on scavenger hunts and trying out a one-sixth gravity chair has us sleeping well at night, even in a dorm full of 800 (that’s right, eight hundred) astronauts-in-training.

The experience is well worth it. After a graduation ceremony in which she gets a diploma, a team photo, and an award for best mission patch, Zoe heads home to start fifth grade absolutely bursting with her love for science and all things space-related; she tells anyone who will listen that she’ll be the first woman astronaut on Mars (as she’s figured out she’ll be exactly the right age when manned Mars missions might begin). I return home happy to have spent such great time with my little one on our mother-daughter family trip . . . to outer space (via Alabama).

To infinity and beyond!

If You Go:

· Sign up early. Even though Space Camp has different programs for aviators and astronauts, as well as programs geared to kids in elementary, middle, and high school, the spots fill up fast. Luckily, the camp website (www.spacecamp.com) is easy to navigate, and you can do the entire registration process online.

· Use Space Camp’s website to book travel on Delta. Space Camp and Delta cooperate to provide discounts for kids and families headed to Huntsville, but you have to book through the Space Camp site. If your kid is traveling alone, no worries: a Space Camp counselor will meet her at the gate.

· Arrive early for lunch with an astronaut. For many camp sessions, an astronaut speaks to parents and kids at lunch on the first day. Hearing Story Musgrave talk about his experiences with space flight made Zoe even more excited to plan her own astronaut career. While a small additional fee applies, the program’s well worth it – Zoe came home with an autographed photo, now pinned in a place of pride on her bedroom bulletin board.

· Consider taking your own linens. While Space Camp provides sheets and pillowcases, ours didn’t stay on the dorm mattresses too well. Toss some twin sheets with extra deep pockets into your bag, as well as a fleece blanket or two to combat the Alabama air conditioning chill. The camp does not provide towels, so bring one or two.

· Take spending money along. Space Camp has two great gift shops right on campus, as well as an IMAX theater. While a movie is included in the camp tuition, souvenirs and popcorn are not.

· Sign up your differently-abled kids. In our parent-child group, a little boy with autism had a wonderful time and learned a lot. The camp has special programs for kids with sight and hearing impairments, and it tries to accommodate kids with all kinds of disabilities.

· Don’t dress up. I laughed when I unpacked back home at the two dresses I’d packed for dinner. Believe me when I say they’ll keep you too busy to change – comfy shorts and old T-shirts are all you’ll need.

· Pack Power Bars for the adults. The cafeteria is decidedly kid-friendly. While it’s certainly all-you-can-eat, adults might appreciate having another option.

· Spend a day or two in Huntsville. If you’ll be traveling with your child, consider taking an extra day to see the sights, including a “Constitution Village” with actors in period costume, the EarlyWorks children’s museum, and SciQuest, a destination for all things kid-centered and scientific. For a comfortable and spacious place to crash, try the nearby Homewood Suites, which offers a free full breakfast and Internet.

· Prepare for your child to beg to return. If your child is anything like the six kids on my team, she’ll be twisting your arm to sign her up for next year. Zoe’s going back on her own for a whole week next summer, and it’s well worth it; the $799 tuition seems completely reasonable for all the learning she’ll do and memories she’ll make.

· Come to love science and space as much as your child does. I thought I was going to Space Camp to spend time with and support my daughter; I came home a die-hard space aficionado.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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