Space is like any other destination: you either pay to go there or you get paid to go there. You’re either a passenger or a pilot. But though it’s only 100km away, neither option is easy.
Being a passenger requires a lot of money. This month, Nasa announced it would allow “private astronaut missions” to the International Space Station, for which it will charge $35,000 a night; getting there, in a capsule operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, will cost about $52m. Even the briefer excursions offered by Virgin Galactic — six minutes of weightlessness more than 50 miles above the ground — will set you back about $250,000.
Pilots need rather less money but they do need dedication — and luck. Neil Armstrong, who took his “small step” 50 years ago next month, had more than a knack for a memorable phrase: he also had a BSc in aeronautical engineering and thousands of hours of flying experience both as a test pilot and in Korean war combat sorties.
Entry requirements haven’t exactly loosened since then, with Nasa’s 2017 astronaut recruitment round selecting 12 people for training from 18,000 applicants.
In short, you need the Right Stuff, of one kind or another. That’s a significant obstacle for the average mid-life space enthusiast — a frustrating one, even, given that space is buzzing at the moment. Wild talk from Musk, who has spoken of moving to Mars, is a given, but last month Amazon founder Jeff Bezos chimed in, detailing his vision for orbital colonies; meanwhile the Apollo 11 anniversary shows what you can achieve when you put your mind (and your military-industrial complex) to it. Yet that 100km is still emphatically reserved for the elite.
Thankfully, there is a kind-of third option: you can pretend to go to space. That is where Adult Space Academy, in Huntsville, Alabama, comes in. For $599 plus airfare, the astronaut manqué can live the dream at ground level. At the end of the 48-hour course, they will have carried out a simulated space mission, gained their Space Academy wings and made some new friends.
Adult Space Academy is based at the US Space & Rocket Center, the official visitor centre for Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It was at Marshall that the Saturn V, the rocket that took men to the moon, was developed in the 1960s, followed by the Space Shuttle in the 1970s and, currently, the Space Launch System, Nasa’s next-generation rocket.
That a small Southern town got this gig is down to a canny postwar senator who persuaded the US Army that Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal — facing closure after the second world war — was just the place to develop its missiles. Recognising a lucrative opportunity, the locals welcomed the influx of rocket scientists and started marketing their town as Rocket City. It had to be an easier sell than The Watercress Capital of the World.
The chief scientist was Wernher Von Braun, a controversial figure — his complicity in the slave labour that built the V-2 missile is debated — but also an engineering genius and a tireless proselytiser for space. He lobbied for the creation of the Space & Rocket Center, which opened in 1970; he also had the idea for Space Camp, the organisation that runs ASA. “We encourage kids to do cheerleading camp, music camp, football camp,” he is supposed to have remarked to the centre’s first director. “Why don’t we have a camp to get kids to do something we need?”
He was on to something: since Space Camp opened in 1982, more than 850,000 children have gone through it, while its adult spin-off has had about 10,000 attendees since 1990. Of Space Camp’s graduates, eight have gone on to become actual up-there-in-space astronauts. Movie makers have found inspiration there too. Who hasn’t seen Space Camp (1986) or Space Warriors (2013)?
The Space & Rocket Center sits by Interstate 565 to the west of Huntsville’s centre. It’s visible for miles around thanks to the full-size Saturn V replica at its centre and is catnip for space enthusiasts, who are drawn by Space Camp and by the museum’s world-class collection. At its heart is an actual, genuine, non-replica Saturn V, which is displayed lengthways in a lofty rectangular building; you enter below the five rocket engines, which loom colossally over you, and then stroll just under 400 feet to the nose. It’s a cathedral to technological prowess — and, like a cathedral, it evokes a contemporary cringe: could we do this now, you wonder?
Space Camp’s answer would be a brisk yes — as it should be. (Who needs a diffident space programme?) It is a conspicuous presence at the Space & Rocket Center thanks to its Habitat dormitory facility, a sci-fi-ish structure that looks like either an off-world colony or a school craft project assembled from kitchen roll inners and silver foil. This is a duality that runs through Space Camp: on the one hand it’s a showcase for a high-tech future; on the other it’s catering for wave after wave of schoolkids, with school-dinner smells and noise in the canteen and decidedly functional dormitories.
This did not deter my 30 or so fellow Adult Space Campers, who had flown in from across the US, from Michigan, California, Florida and elsewhere. Ages ranged from twenties to sixties; the ratio of men to women was about two to one; careers — I learnt as we chatted at mealtimes — skewed towards engineering and technology. Everyone seemed to be a true space believer: a good few had invested in blue Nasa-logoed flight suits, which they wore for the duration. “Who here has dreamed they were at Space Camp?” asked the instructor in the lecture theatre where we gathered for Friday afternoon’s orientation session; several hands went up. One man, it turned out, had been before as a child — twice.
Orientation over — use common sense; don’t be dumb; no booze — and branded T-shirts donned, we were split into two groups, Team Pioneer and Team Mariner, named respectively after a Jupiter and a Mars probe. Mariner was led by Laura, thirtysomething, ex-Canadian navy, and frankly relishing the chance to guide a group of self-selecting adult enthusiasts. “With you guys I’m going to nerd out,” she exclaimed. “I’m going to nerd out hard!”
We got off to a low-key start: Mariner’s first task was to build model rockets, which involved sitting round tables in a small classroom and gumming fins and motor armatures on to cardboard tube. It was impossible not to think of primary school, not least because it was Elmer’s School Glue that we were getting all over our fingers. (Alas, poor weather meant we never had the chance to launch them.) Later in the weekend we built heat shields too, out of scraps of kitchen foil, cork sheet, kitchen sponge and such like, and we divided into teams, our challenge to protect an egg from a two-minute burn by a propane torch. I was unreasonably pleased to see my team’s effort, flimsily held together with putty and strips of tinfoil, keep the egg fridge-cold. (Budget-minded space agencies can reach me via the FT.)
Other tasks were more dramatic. We all had a spin in the Multi-Axis Trainer, whose three concentric metal circles move in independent directions; you sit in a metal cage in the middle and a motor sets you tumbling forwards, backwards and sideways. In First Man, last year’s Neil Armstrong biopic, the rookie astronauts all throw up when they try it. Team Mariner had stronger stomachs — or perhaps Space Camp’s MAT was gentler; Laura explained that the tumble in any given direction was too short for any dissonance between your eyes and your ear canals to result in nausea.
Another contraption, comprising elasticated rope and a chair-cum-harness, simulated the moon’s one-sixth gravity. Strapped in, you negotiated a grey, fibreglass slice of lunar surface, Laura advising that sidesteps, sack-race jumps or exaggerated strides were the most efficient ways of getting about. I favoured giant leaps for mankind, and, as with the MAT, wanted longer.
The core of the programme was two simulated space missions: a space shuttle trip to the ISS and a Mars mission, both carried out using replica spacecraft and mission controls. Being in mission control for one guaranteed the glamour of space travel on the other.
For the space shuttle mission, I was mission control’s PayCom — payload communicator, tasked with supervising the astronauts aboard the ISS. I learnt two big things. First, that space is a ruthlessly diarised place with every moment of an astronaut’s time accounted for. Flight commands, system checks, experiments: it’s all one big to-do list. As well as the console and keyboard on each mission controller’s desk, there was a bulky folder detailing the schedule, plus a second folder that itemised the procedures to follow in case anything went wrong. “What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare?” Careful how you answer that one in your Nasa interview.
The second thing I learnt was that measured tones and acronyms go a long way in space, especially delivered with an American accent. Team Mariner sounded totally on top of things through my bulky headset; commands and responses pinged back and forth with laconic efficiency. Yet we still managed to leave behind two astronauts on a spacewalk and forgot to close the cargo bay doors before plunging back to earth. A disastrous mission — though the open-top shuttle, relayed to mission control as computer-generated imagery, looked pretty cool when it landed.
Meanwhile, the ISS crew needed my help. “PayCom, we have an N2 and CW/Backup anomaly,” they reported. “Roger that,” I replied. “Stand by.” Actually, while I knew it was something bad to do with nitrogen, I was damned if I could find the procedure — I had to beckon an instructor over, who discovered I’d been given the wrong folder. Not my fault! But bad luck for the astronauts. I calmly radioed back that there was a “folder content anomaly” and felt glad it was only a simulation.
Space conquered, it was time for the Marshall tour that is part of the ASA package. The trouble was that, as a non-US citizen, I was barred. That was a disappointment but also a relief. Laura had more than delivered on her promise of nerding out, and my jet-lagged brain had the pummelled feeling that comes from an overload of information.
I used the time to explore Huntsville and didn’t regret the decision: it seems to cover a lot of bases. There’s a leafy antebellum neighbourhood, Twickenham, whose genteel mansions boast soap-opera backstories; there’s Modernist weirdness, such as the “Eggbeater Jesus”, a huge, trippy mural on a 1960s church; and there are some appealing, hipster-friendly redevelopments as well. Rocket City is growing fast, as high-tech businesses — including Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket company — cluster in, and those engineers need their craft beer and artisan coffee.
The Nasa links are pervasive. At the Tangled String, a music-venue-cum-workshop in an old textile mill, you can buy custom guitars built by a man who used to design rocket engines; at Campus 805, a brewhouse in a former high school, you can neck Monkeynaut IPA, named in homage to the monkeys that Nasa lofted into space in 1959. (The same venue also boasts an axe-throwing gallery and a tattoo parlour: all the ingredients of a memorable night out.) Even Used Tire World gussies itself up with a miniature home-made lunar module, which dangles forlornly by a busy highway.
When I got back at Space Camp, it was time to go to Mars — specifically to a base on Phobos, one of the planet’s two moons. The base was called Ouranos — a high-risk choice in a facility frequented by school parties — and it sat in the huge, dimly lit hall that houses Space Camp’s replica space vehicles and habitats.
As one of two flight engineers, it was my job to test rock samples in Ouranos’s gleaming lab while Mission Control hassled us to keep on schedule; then, spacesuited up, we assembled equipment under the LED stars outside, bolting components on to a solar array. The suit made reaching awkward and the thick gloves felt clumsy. Despite having a cooling ice pack across my shoulders, I was sweating by the end, and glad to revert to my day clothes. I was gladder still to retreat to my bunk later on. Even pretend space travel is hard work.
The final day brought graduation. With school parties, family groups and Team Pioneer, my Mariner colleagues and I trooped into a large lecture theatre, where “The Star Spangled Banner” struck up on the PA. The master of ceremonies gave a brief speech of congratulation and reminded us that a Space Camp alumna, Christina Koch, was currently aboard the ISS — noting also that only female participants had so far made it into orbit. “Don’t worry, gentlemen,” he added. “You guys can catch up!” Then we walked one by one to the podium, where Laura shook our hands and gave us our certificates and our Space Academy wings lapel pins.
I suspect that you would have to work hard not to graduate — yet to my surprise I felt proud. I also felt sad to say goodbye to my Mariner comrades: we’d shared an adventure after all. And if that adventure hadn’t actually involved leaving the ground, it didn’t matter: I’d still come closer to space.
Neville Hawcock is acting deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine