Fewer commanders are on hand at mission control to guide space shuttle adventures. A dwindling number of explorers float in the simulated weightlessness of outer space or dress in bulky, white astronaut suits.
Those T-shirts of the 1980s proclaiming "I spent the night in space" have disappeared. Space Camp, once a star program where children could learn and live like astronauts, has fallen on hard times.
Red ink has run into the millions of dollars. Loans are in default. Jobs have been cut. And the former director of the organization that runs the camp, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, has been sued by the state for $7.5 million. Adding to Space Camp's woes: After Sept. 11, fewer people were willing to put their children in airplanes and travel from out of state to the youth camps.
Despite the problems, Space Camp picked up business around Christmas with discount rates. And officials say they are cautiously optimistic that parents will let children fly again and enjoy the camp's rocket-pack simulators, mock mission control, moon walk machine and neutral-buoyancy water tank.
"There's probably some additional pain coming, but we'll get through it. Space Camp is too good of a program," said Larry Capps, executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
Last year, about 12,000 children attended Space Camp sessions, most of which run for a week, down from 18,000 in 1998. Still, the 388,000 visitors who stopped in last year to look at the rockets and other attractions were enough to keep it Alabama's No. 1 tourist attraction.
Capps said the Space Camps in Florida and California have also endured hard times and are facing the consequences of years of mismanagement, poor advertising and unfulfilled dreams.
Space Camp in Mountain View, Calif., closed its doors Jan. 6. Space Camp in Florida is selling the Astronaut Hall of Fame at Titusville to Delaware North, the company that runs concessions for the Kennedy Space Center. Huntsville's Space Camp started in 1982 and prospered through the early 1990s with the popularity of the space shuttle.
But problems arose when money from supposed corporate backers never materialized for a program, conceived by then-Director Mike Wing, that let fifth-grade students attend camp for free. The idea was that those students would spread Space Camp's popularity and perhaps come back themselves as paying customers in later years.
Amid the red ink, the marketing staff was axed and word-of-mouth among schoolchildren stopped.
Alabama, in a state lawsuit, lays the blame at the feet of Wing, who, under pressure, resigned as director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in September 1999, leaving behind more than $4 million in debt. Most of his management team resigned at Gov. Don Siegelman's request or were fired when they resisted Siegelman's pledge to revamp the board.
Wing, now a baseball coach at LeTourneau University in Texas, was not available for comment on this article. The lawsuit claims Wing owes $4.5 million in losses from tuition and travel for the fifth-grader program, and $3 million in NASA education grants for the same purpose. Auditors said Wing committed fraud against the state and misused state money. Last year, when state auditors said he should pay back $7.5 million, he denied owing the program anything.
"There was no personal gain here. This was to serve kids," he told the Huntsville Times.
Members of the revamped Space Center board want to replenish the program's bank accounts. The Space Camp Foundation, a separate organization that manages the out-of-state programs, still runs Space Camps in Florida, Japan, Canada, Turkey and Belgium.
"When you end one fiscal year with a $74,000 debt and the next year you've got an unaudited deficit of $2.8 million, when your camp attendance is down and you've got significant debt from the foundation that it cannot pay . . . these are clear signals you need to go in another direction," said Mary Jane Caylor, chairman of the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission, which oversees the Huntsville-based Space Center.
The California camp has a $13 million debt and needs $1.5 million to $2 million to reopen the camp, Capps said. Its financial burden has continued to climb in recent years as attendance fell off and additional accounting problems were revealed.
The reopening could happen as soon as May. Two companies and a private investor are interested in reviving the camp, said Julio Valencia, who was director of the California program and now runs the Committee to Save Space Camp.