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  • Betsy Singleton Snyder

What I Learned at Space Camp

My son’s 5th grade class and some middle schoolers were taking a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I wasn’t sure I should go. I’m not particularly fond of pretending to shoot off in space. However, it has occurred to me to shoot my family off in space. I’m sure they’d be just fine.

Actually, I know a bit about advanced mission colonies. I’ve been living in a spacey station for over eight years. That’s when I gave birth to three more boys, which made four, counting my first child. I guess I should also add the one grown man who, if he walked on the moon, would leave the largest prints of any previous astronauts. Dust from his boots tracked on any lunar module would require a NASA Dyson. His shoes are that big. He regularly leaves them where I can trip over them and fall. We have gravity on earth. You can get hurt when you fall. It’s not all floating and roses.

It was slightly unsettling, thinking of boarding a chartered bus with pre-teens. Still, escape with space camp-bound kids is escape, maybe even adventure.

My initial qualms about astronaut training began to dissipate within the first few hours of orientation. I soon realized that space camp was actually going to train me in the rubrics of pre-teen boyhood. After only a few hours of trekking around the camp grounds, I found myself listening to and observing our group of eleven-year old guys. Our Crew Trainer gave me a space log with facts and timelines, but, at the same time I was getting another education.

Before this mission it had not hit me so hard that my oldest child was floating away from me. Even though I was assigned the same crew, an entire group of boys that included my son, he was soon putting distance between us. I was used to us hanging out together. As we walked between activities, he stood near me on occasion, but I could see something else unfolding. He was leaving the mother ship for a space walk without me, beyond me. He was exploring. He was separating for longer periods.

In this move away from me, my child engaged in words and actions that were meant for a different group, a group of people of which I was not a part. I became an anthropologist, curious about their rituals, conversations, and slang. I wanted to pick it up, I even strained a bit, but I knew it wasn’t my language. Mom talk over meals was frequently received with tolerant looks, so I spoke less and extended my radar up for further data. I learned the guys food preferences, what they got at the cafeteria and the junk for which they plunked their change into the vending machines. I noticed their style, types of athletic shoes, preference for teams advertised from their ball caps, who couldn’t be still, who tossed his water bottle, who lagged behind.

We all took risks, even me. MAT is a simulator that spins you upside down and right-side up, and our team got a chance to strap in. I felt I could handle it, and I wanted to be enthusiastic. My son warned me as I stepped up to enter the multi-axis-trainer. His caution was done in the spirit of, Be careful. I was touched, but I also wondered if a part of him was afraid that mom might get sick. He mentioned my recent migraines. I hoped his reluctance wasn’t from some anxiety that I might embarrass him. I only squealed in short bursts.

During the trip, my kid was resourceful. He had forgotten his shampoo, so he bummed some from a friend in his habitat. There was no need for me to buy extra, even though I offered. Neither did he worry about not having a phone. He used a friend’s, called me and said good night. No conversation, just a sweet goodnight. He reported he’d already called his dad at home. Over and out.

Toward the end of day two, our Crew Trainer led us to the gift shop. The boys rifled through loads of quirky science gizmos and NASA trinkets. Afterward, I asked one intense boy to see his interesting mug. He unwrapped it, and it was covered in planets. I complimented him, but several minutes later, the mug, which had been loosed from its paper, broke.

At dinner, the disappointed boy had slow, quiet tears streaming down his cheeks. He barely moved as they splashed on his tray. It took everything I could do not to grab him and hug him. Instead, I, along with the teacher, hatched Plan B. We’d take extraordinary measures and have another group purchase a new mug during their time in the gift shop. “Hang in there,” I said, trying to sound upbeat, minus my overly emotional mother who was ready to drag him by the hand to the shop and get this situation fixed. At least I was able to show appropriate calm and restraint. Maybe even I could become an astronaut.

The final evening of space camp, the eleven-year-old boys in my assigned group took their parts on the Endeavor ship, leading their very own mission. My son, like every other boy, paid attention during the simulation. After several run throughs, the boys kindly, sometimes with giggles, and often with camaraderie, played their parts. I sat in the back of the payload area, listening on a headset. It was fascinating to learn about space, but it was greater to see team work and understanding in growing boys. They took responsibility for one another. In the end, they landed that big, pretend shuttle. Mission control was full of boys hooting and clapping, still kids, but standing on the horizon of manhood.

As the evening closed, our team, Hadar, named for a star, waited in the hall for the quiz bowl. The guys tried mightily to chant, rap, and holler at the nearby girls from a different team. Their flirting was not polished and a waste of good hormones, said the teacher. I smiled, having had similar thoughts. When my boy was a baby, we’d spent hours together. I’d watched him pull off his socks for entertainment, seen his face covered in baby food, watched him bang drums, Where was the little boy who said he was never going to leave home? I hadn’t really believed it would come, but it had.

As we got on our bus to go home, all the kids were wearing their graduation t-shirts. The mood of the bus was altered. My intuition said this trip was another small step forward into adult life. My son patted me, told me he was so glad that I’d come. I smiled. “But I want to come by myself next year,” he added.

Roger that.

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