Opportunity of a Lifetime: ‘Space Camp’ at the US Space and Rocket Center


The skills and individual qualities identified as being crucial for personal achievement for people with vision impairments may be difficult for them to achieve in an integrated school setting. And that’s the motivation for a small number of Visiting (Itinerant) Teachers in Victoria to spend months fundraising, planning and battling the bureaucracy in order to bounce the approximately 35 students in the past seven years out of Australia on an adventure to Space Camp at the US Space and Rocket Center in Alabama, USA. The trip is resplendent with fabulous opportunities for team building and leadership, risk taking and problem solving, practising social and communication skills, orientation and mobility skills, organisation and independence – and that’s even before the group’s arrival at Space Camp!

Why does the Statewide Vision Resource Centre have a ‘Camps and Recreations Program’?

The transition from childhood to adulthood is described as being one of life’s most challenging periods – and a time which can be particularly difficult for adolescents who are dealing not only with normal developmental issues but also with the impact of their vision impairment (Uttermohlen, 1997). Studies indicate a negative impact on the psychological and social adjustment caused by the ongoing chronic strain of being physically different from one’s peers and by having to overcome potential limitations in the activities of daily living and functional independence (Huurre et al., 1999).

The skills and individual qualities identified as being crucial for personal achievement in various studies include self-confidence, self-awareness, sense of humour, problem-solving, goal-setting, participation in sports and social activities, independence, social and interpersonal skills, advocacy skills, organisational skills, and mobility skills. Many researchers suggest that in order to minimize the impact of vision impairment, support and instruction in these areas must start in childhood (Hutto & Hare, 1997; Sacks & Wolffe, 1998; Crudden & McBroom, 1999; Hodges & Keller, 1999; Kleinschmidt, 1999; Rosenblum, 2000).

Rosenblum (2000) notes that as vision impairment is a low incidence disability, students are often without peers with vision impairments in their school setting – they are often the only students to be utilising adaptive materials (e.g. braille or enlarged print) and other accommodations (e.g. white cane or computer with voice-output), exacerbating feelings of difference and isolation.

Vision impaired adults have commented, “What helped me most … was knowing and reading about others who confronted similar challenges in their lives” (Uttermohlen, 1997, p. 309). The benefits of role models and mentors is also discussed by some researchers (Hutto & Hare, 1997; Crudden & McBroom, 1999; Kleinschmidt, 1999).

Although not unique to the vision impaired population, the sense of belonging is seen as a major contributing factor to a student’s success at school (Bishop, 1986). Studies have indicated that lack of social acceptance may cause students with vision impairments to feel inadequate and inferior, which, in turn, has a negative impact on self esteem (Huurre et al., 1999). Students with vision impairments may have difficulties relating to peers and are often socially isolated with fewer friends and smaller social networks, spending more time alone and in passive activities than sighted adolescents (Huurre et al., 1999; Wolffe & Sacks, 1997).

Students with vision impairments report that they often experienced teasing and describe themselves as being “outsiders in the hierarchy of the school culture” (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 444). Uttermohlen (1997) describes expending a great deal of energy trying ‘to pass’ among her teenaged peers as though she was sighted. She attributes this to her understanding of what it means to be blind. She comments that the internalised stereotypes of blindness and low vision may be just as harmful to people with vision impairments as those held by their sighted peers.

Social experiences were seen as a way to enhance the self-concepts, assertiveness and social skills of students with vision impairments. Having an activity or interest in common was seen as a key to the success of friendship. Hodges and Keller (1999) and Rosenblum (2000) recommended that students be encouraged to be active in clubs and activities where they can interact with other students; to participate in religious or civic groups; to explore hobbies and recreational interests; and be offered support and instruction in the acquisition of skills.

The Statewide Vision Resource Centre offers an exciting range of activities designed to provide opportunities for students to try something new, to take risks, to explore leadership roles, and to rise to challenges. The aims of the ‘camps and recreation program’ are as follows:

  • to provide the opportunity for students to develop peer group networks with other students with vision impairments
  • to promote within the students a better understanding of their vision impairment
  • to develop, within a supportive environment, social and communication skills that will assist in the students’ management of the varying demands of their educational environments
  • to offer additional recreational, educational and life experiences that may not be available within the school curriculum
  • to offer students opportunities to explore and participate in recreation and social activities, hobbies and interests, and be offered support and instruction in the acquisition of the necessary skills
  • to offer students opportunities to develop their self-confidence, self-awareness, sense of humour, problem-solving, goal-setting, independence, social and interpersonal skills, advocacy skills, organisational skills, and mobility skills
  • to have the opportunity to meet and spend time with adults with vision impairments
  • to have fun!

What is Space Camp?

Space Camp is a six-day program conducted in Huntsville, Alabama where approximately 200 students with vision impairments from all over the world are offered the opportunity of a lifetime. The students live in a simulated space station and participate in a program designed to develop their leadership and teamwork skills as they prepare for two simulated missions, which are undertaken in life-sized models of a space-shuttle, space station and mission control.

Students attend lectures about astronomy, astrophysics, hydroponics, rocketry, and life on the International Space Station (ISS). Practical sessions include rocket construction, computer simulators (eg landing a fighter plane on an aircraft carrier) and ‘Area 51’ – a series of team problem-solving activities. SCUBA diving allows students to experience working in a weightless environment.

Students experience simulators similar to those used in the training of real astronauts:

  • 1/6 gravity chair – movement with gravity similar to that on the moon
  • multi-axis trainer (MAT) – experience of spinning out of control in space
  • 5 degrees of freedom chair (5DF) – experience of performing extra vehicular activities (EVA), for example repairs in the cargo bay of the space shuttle
  • manned manoeuvring unit (MMU) – experience of performing extra vehicular activities (EVA)

Three 2½-hour training missions and three 1½-hour practise missions allow students to spend time in each of the three simulation areas – Orbiter, Space Station and Mission Control, playing various roles – Pilot, Mission Specialist and Payload Specialist.

During the practise and training sessions, students had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the layout of the simulation areas, and become familiar with roles and responsibilities for the different mission positions. Scripts and reference manuals are provided in each student’s preferred medium (large print, braille, CCTV), and voice output or enlargement allows access to the computers in Mission Control.

Routine procedures, such as the Orbiter launch sequence, are facilitated by each student, communicating with each other via headsets, reading their part of a script. Once the students are familiar with the ‘ordinary’, they are ready for the final 6-hour mission. Now very confident with their roles, students are able to perform repairs to a disabled satellite, deal with numerous anomalies and medical emergencies, and even survive a serious meteor shower occurring in Space Station. This organised mayhem – carefully designed to promote teamwork and to reinforce information provided in the lectures – is orchestrated by the ‘Space Ghosts’, the Camp Counsellors.

Working so closely together and having to depend on each other, the students form a strong bond. Firm friendships are formed between participants – often coming from the USA, Canada, Mexico, Ireland, Israel, Australia etc. Email ensures that students can stay in touch despite living thousands of kilometres apart.

Attending Space Camp can be a life-changing experience. It may be the first time that students, who all attend their local schools, spend an extended period of time with other students with vision impairments. It may also be the first time that they are able to fully participate in scientific learning on such an experiential level. Students have the opportunity to test their personal limits in a safe and supportive environment. Students rise to the many challenges in a way that may surprise even themselves. Students often return home with a new sense of what is possible and with new goals and direction. For two former Space Campers, working in the field of space science may become a reality – one is currently studying Astrophysics and another Astronomy at university level.


Bishop, V. E. (1986). Identifying the components of success in mainstreaming. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 80, 939-946.
Crudden, A. & McBroom, L. W. (1999). Barriers to employment: A survey of employed persons who are visually impaired. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 93, 341-350.
Hodges, J. S. & Keller, M. J. (1999). Visually impaired students’ perceptions of their social integration in college. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 93, 153-165.
Hutto, M. D. & Hare, D. (1997). Career advancement for young women with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 91, 280-295.
Huurre, T. M., Komulainen, E. J., & Aro, H. M. (1999). Social support and self-esteem among adolescents with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 93, 26-37.
Kleinschmidt, J. J. (1999). Older adults’ perspectives on their successful adjustment to vision loss. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 93, 69-81.
Rosenblum, P. (2000). Perceptions of the impact of visual impairment on the lives of adolescents. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 7, 434-445.
Sacks, S. Z. & Wolffe, K. E. (1998). Lifestyles of adolescents with visual impairments: An ethnographic analysis. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 92, 7-17.
Uttermohlen, T. L. (1997). On “passing” through adolescence. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 91, 309-314.
Wolffe, K. & Sacks, S. Z. (1997). The lifestyles of blind, low vision, and sighted youths: A quantitative comparison. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 91, 245-257.

Presented at the biennial South Pacific Educators in Vision Impairment (SPEVI) Conference by Deb Lewis, 2005.

More information about Space Camp