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Review: My weekend at Space Camp

My son and I went to Parent / Child Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., this weekend, and I thought I’d share a bit about the experience for those who might be considering it.

The program was 48 hours long, from Friday at noon until Sunday at noon, but it was so jam packed with activities, it felt more like a week. They really keep you busy and the days are long — 6:30 or 7 a.m. wake-up and then activities straight through until 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Having done it, I’d say Space Camp is more an adventure camp than a science / educational program. “Trainees” get to use a number of simulators that are like those used to train astronauts for missions, and they get to conduct a simulated space shuttle mission, with each child and parent playing a role on the team either in mission control or on a spacecraft. It’s exciting, but I can’t say we learned a whole lot. Yes, the staff ran through some brief information about the history of space exploration, but there was not a word about the science of it.

[Plenty of scientific information can be found in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center on the campus, so you could explore that on your own, but it would have to be before or after the camp, because you may not have more than 20 minutes to yourself during the weekend program. My point is, if your child is fascinated with the engineering side of space travel, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth the $399 per person for the camp or whether you’d be better off just visiting the museum for a day or two.]

Parent / Child Space Camp accepts kids ages 7-11, but my personal take is that it’s probably better for the 9-11 crowd than for 7- and 8-year-olds. The nature of the activities and the length of the days seems a bit much for kids still in the primary grades, although I’ll admit that the 7-year-olds who attended with us (my son included) seemed very happy and showed no signs of fatigue, so maybe my concern about the long days and late bedtimes is misplaced.

If you have an anxious child or a child too young for regular Space Camp, where the minimum age is 9, the family camp is a way to give them the experience in an atmosphere where they have you with them to make them feel more secure. To make the most of the program, though, the parent or adult who is participating should be more than a chaperon. If they’re adventurous enough to try the activities, too, you’ll get more out of the weekend.

The staff was friendly, although not always as knowledgeable as I would have liked. In those rare cases where they were talking about the history of the program, it seemed there were some kids in our group who knew as much as or more than the staff members. I also ran into some issues during the camp where things did not run as smoothly as I would have expected, given their 30 years of experience running camps. That was disappointing.

If you are thinking about going, you should know that you’ll be staying in a “habitat,” which is a large building designed to look like a space station. The living quarters are quite spartan — bunks with thin mattresses, community bathrooms, doors that close but don’t lock, no windows in the bunk rooms. You also may be assigned roommates from your camp group. The whole experience brings to mind a military boot camp, minus any harsh drill instructors, of course. If that is a deal breaker for you, you can book a room at the Marriott hotel on the property and still take part in the camp. It’ll just add to your cost.

Final analysis: Good fun, great for the astronaut wanna-be, not so educational.

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