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  NOT A HAPPY SPACE CAMPER.  
   
   
 

It turns out that Space Camp is complete bullshit.

It took 10 years for this fact to sink in -- the exact duration of my life since I attended Space Camp as a kid. And I'll be the first to admit that I was the most confused during that decade -- an unendurable term of ennui whose sole root digs squarely into the heart of NASA and the rocket science sellouts that decided camps for kids at their jet propulsion and blast-off facilities, respectively, would be a fancy

 
 

way to make a buck because we all know that $90 billion in taxpayer bones hardly scratches the surface when it comes to the pursuit of pure science.

After all, shouldn't we know how spiders spin their webs in zero gravity? Or maybe we need another IMAX movie of gleeful astronauts gobbling water droplets like hungry, hungry hippos to show us a colossal waste of cash.

Billing itself as a magnanimous cradle of learning for the intellectually curious, Space Camp's not really worth a damn. As a geeky bookworm, I already knew everything the Space Camp counselors did except what motivated them (service academy nominations, military power, world

     
  domination, yadda-yadda-yadda). So how was I so stupid not to see it? Is everything that much clearer through the lens of cynicism?

The short answer is yes.

Looking back, Space Camp begins to resemble a Hitler-youth style ideology school, a shy creature buried deep in the GOP blueprint but avoiding the glossy brochures. Space Camp targets little kids at their earliest and most naïve, playing to their intellectual curiosity, placing them in the trusted hands of NASA, and transforming them into submissive, little-brotherly government minions. Space Camp is the boot camp that breeds the legion of elite-level Republicans that will man the future forays into uncharted levels of big-government domination.

My first clue should have been the source of both the encouragement to attend Space Camp and the financial means to do so -- Grandpa Rasmus, a retired Army Corps of Engineers full colonel whose last assignment before going civilian was at Huntsville's Redstone Arsenal. There, he and a bevy of bright minds that could legitimately

 
     

call themselves rocket scientists spent the best years of the 1970s launching Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) at a barely-inhabited spit in the Marshall Islands called Kwajalein, now creepily known as the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.

If you could forgive the ends, the means was actually a neat project in puerile ballistics. The guys in Kwajalein would launch their ICBM at the same time Redstone's was

 
  going up in Alabama. On a good day the missiles would collide off the coast of Mexico. On a bad day they'd miss by ten feet and the in-bound missile would rocket over the Sonoran Desert before crash landing near Roswell, N.M. These explosions bore conspiracy theories only slightly more bizarre than the truth -- that an ideological enemy in an imagined competition to ruin our way of life was driving the U.S. to dedicate its best minds to flinging explosives around the world at several times the speed of sound. Far out, right?

Given this knowledge, and a familiarity with this fine government of ours, the similarity of ballistics means between the arms and space races makes you think they wouldn't fund this without a lot of fear to force up the dollars. Certainly no pursuit of pure knowledge would justify such splurging; otherwise we'd have cold fusion and world peace. So to inure a population bred in peacetime to fund such needless militant R&D spending, you package it in the fascination of learning and target the young.

Space Camp, though, is for the little, unconditioned kids. They reserve a higher-level program for the older kids that have some previous experience shaping their worldview. At the barely curled

 
  age of 12, I was labeled a tough nut to crack, a dangerous mind, too old for Space Camp and sent to double-rigorous Space Academy, which is more or less a remedial program, along the theory of latter-day language immersion if your parents weren't on the ball to teach you bilingually in those sponge-like days of early childhood. Soon I was caught up on my appreciation for astronomical goals and      
 

parroting along with the regulars.

Still the Government could have taken some cues from the smoke and mirrors experts in Hollywood. Space Camp could have been less transparently purposeful, more superficially beautiful, perhaps populated by a surprisingly complete retinue of now-adult B-list stars, anchored by the luscious Lea Thompson of Howard the Duck infamy. She alone, taming the whirling dervish gyroscope in the film, demonstrating the mettle to pilot the space shuttle, made the idea of Space Camp really fucking sexy. But the practice of mining fools gold in the red sand of the Mission to Mars tent beneath the heavy-handed tutelage of a Machiavellian counselor was far less seductive. In fact it was more like a hammer: big government, big goals, big good, banging away at my head.

Then the veneer really fell to shit. For one thing, there was no zero gravity simulation. This should be illustrated in a highly-visible disclaimer on the application right next to the bullet point on indoctrination. It's only fitting for kids to think anything dealing with space would naturally give a taste of its most compelling visceral feature. That said, Space Camp blithely hints at a zero-gravity experience in its promotional materials, but waits until you've paid your money to disappoint with the truth that you'll weigh just as much at Space Camp as you did at home, if only you can lay off the astronaut ice cream, fatso.

Apollo 13 required some convincing zero gravity footage, and the

 
      filmmakers shot it in an airplane that was put in a 30-degree dive, where the velocity of gravity is equaled by the plane's descent and you have a de facto zero-G environment. Admittedly this is a little out of the scope of Space Camp, and probably fucking terrifying to boot, but you'd think NASA could come up with something, a wind chamber or giant vacuum tube. No such luck, Space Campers. For that zero  
 

gravity experience we were bussed to a slough where we waded through the scum and held our breath while we built a big tetrahedron in murky green water. Meanwhile, our counselors patrolled the water for snapping turtles and plucked leeches from our necks.

Once the disillusionment starts to set in you begin to see the other cut-rate gimmicks wearing the cloth of first-rate science. Space Camp starts to wear on your natural fear of distant federal agencies. The sleeping pod in the Taurus Cadet Habitat is nothing more than a bunk bed in a cinderblock barracks. The Missions Specialist Vacuum Cuboid Manipulator is the same carnival claw you spent $6.75 in quarters at trying to win your girlfriend a stuffed animal. And the lunar module landing simulator you passed sleepless hours mastering was just the Asteroids arcade game in a space museum. But worst of all, the Astronaut Ice Cream you knew you'd love is … well you don't know exactly what it is, but it makes your teeth so slippery your brush loses purchase and the gasoline sheen of pigeon feathers shines when you smile, and so you're pretty damned sure astronauts are smart enough to avoid it.

When the fun wears thin, Space Camp starts to feel like a prison. Wearing my orange flight short-pants and TRW t-shirt (just the kind of faceless government contractor any kid is dying to identify with) I looked longingly through the fence at the chain gang picking up trash in the freeway median and thought, hey, at least nobody lied to those guys and they're getting what they paid for.

And then there's the kind of kid that loves Space Camp: The pork-barrel-bred, fat before his years kid with an adult haircut -- a Southern sleazebag Senator in training. He identifies with his corporate sponsor and sews their achievement patches to his replica flight jacket. He comes back every summer and he's laughing at you

 
  behind his beady eyes because he sees where this is going. His breath reeks of know-it-all dishonesty and his sweat smells like cotton candy. He forms an unlikely pair with the really pubescent kid with the hair on his balls who we all see in the showers, and they form the kind of evil teenage syndicate that makes most of those group situations miserable. One night it      
 

goes wrong though when 'Appleby' (as we've come to call the corpulent orator) gets the banana-shaped Runt candy piece stuck under his eyelid during a scuffle with his alpha-male protector/torturer. He becomes bitter and standoffish; his mind turns to fermentation on visions of future revenge when everyone will be sorry.

It all goes to remind you that nothing changes, and Space Camp isn't without the cute girls in jean shorts that you might get lucky enough to make out with. In fact, the whiff of evil in the subtext is enough to drive the one mature kid to assault his only real friend with a fake fruit candy. God knows what it's doing to the sensitive kids.

And that brings me to the enduring effect of my own experience at Space Camp. Not vile sarcasm, nor impressive trivia about the Gemini or Mercury programs, but a deep suspicion of big government. One forgets how much of the space program was pioneered during the red scare, in the defense of freedom or the defeat of evil. But the scary subtext was that much of the Cold War was motivated by the desire to deliver nuclear warheads around the globe at high speed. So when I saw Appleby again, sweating as he sauntered, bow-tied and coiffed on Capitol Hill I cringed at the thought of whom his new champion might be. No doubt someone with sufficient muscle and blind faith in the mythology of enlightenment and destiny they preach at Space Camp and other places where the past and the future are dictated by the accidental winners of the arms race.