Take Flight in Hunstville, Ala.'s Space Camp

By Tom Kavanagh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

The F/A-18 ahead of me weaved and dodged, flitting in and out of my gun sight. I was closing in for the kill, but so was the ground.

"Sink rate! Sink rate!" a cold female voice mechanically repeated over the cockpit speaker. "Pull up! Pull up!"

My foe surely heard the same commands and began leveling off. Perfect. Just a few more seconds . . .

Suddenly, dozens of fracture lines peppered the glass of the canopy, and everything came to an abrupt halt.

"Ha! Got you, Dad!"

I looked over at my 12-year-old son, James, now gloating in another simulator across the dimly lit room.

"I've been following you. Didn't you notice?"

Notice? It was a miracle that I'd mustered enough hand-eye-brain coordination to keep from crashing this virtual bird.

James shook his head. "Haven't you shot down anybody yet?"

The answer was -- and would remain -- no. During a three-day weekend program called Aviation Challenge, I and four other parents would spend many hours in these flight simulators with our children, and the kids would outgun the adults again and again. (Or, more precisely, my kid would outfly me over and over.)

For the young guns, the weekend was an adventure and, overall, a success. For the grown-ups, the experience was mixed. Aviation Challenge (AC) is part of U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., which is also home to the Marshall Space Flight Center. (That's where Wernher von Braun led NASA's rocket science research and helped put men on the moon.) As the name implies, Space Camp primarily offers mock training for young "astronauts." The programs are geared to varying ages, and most are week-long and for kids only. But there are also three- and four-day weekend programs throughout the summer for children ages 7 to 12 and their parents.

James, bitten by the aviation bug a year earlier, had lobbied hard for this trip. At 54 and plagued with chronic back problems, I was leery. There would not only be the centrifuge (which simulates G-forces) and the "helo-dunker" (which approximates a crash landing in water) to contend with, but also something more elemental: Campers are housed in barracks-like quarters, sleeping in bunk beds that could prove unfriendly to my lumbar disks. Turns out, I was right about that. I wound up putting the mattress on the floor.

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