A simulator is part of the fun at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. (U.S. Space & Rocket Center)

NASA may be shutting down its space shuttle program, but that won’t stop a group of young astronauts from heading to the moon this summer, and Mars the next.

In simulation, at least.

For 29 years, Space Camp and its attendees have followed in NASA’s footsteps. This summer, the camp is taking the next giant leap for mankind largely on its own. The U.S. government may not want to fund space travel right now, but many children and adults have the money to pretend.

Space Camp was started in 1982, just a year after the first space shuttle launch, and is run by the nonprofit U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is funded by the state of Alabama and serves as the official visitor center for NASA’s nearby Marshall Space Flight Center.

The largest program of its kind in the country, more than 500,000 people have graduated from Space Camp, including several campers who went on to work for NASA and one, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who flew to the space station last year. Programs are offered year-round to children ages 9 to 18, as well as to adults, and attendees learn about space flight in classrooms and in simulated missions that can take several hours. Tuition for the six-day camps for children range from $699 to $899.

Despite the mothballing of the shuttle program, interest in space camp hasn’t waned: Registrations for six-day camps are up this fiscal year to more than 11,600, officials said. And the end of the shuttle is seen as an opportunity to create a new history lesson for campers.

“Just as we incorporated the Saturn V [rocket] from the 1960s into our curriculum, we’ll look at the space shuttle program, what was done with it, what was flown and what was achieved in its 30-year history,” said Mike Flachbart, vice president of operations at Space Camp.

Meanwhile, Space Camp is charting its own path toward the next stage of space flight — whatever that may be.

“It’s a bit frustrating because we have to go out in directions that might not be the actual direction others go in, whether it’s NASA or other space programs around the world,” said Flachbart, who has been with the camp for 24 years, starting as a summer counselor.

Space Camp’s current direction includes the introduction this month of a new simulator that features a launching capsule and landing vehicle for potential trips to the moon, Mars or even an asteroid. At least one more simulator will be installed within the next few years. Meanwhile, four shuttle simulators at the camp will be reduced to two.

Story Musgrave, a retired NASA astronaut, consulted with Space Camp on the new simulator. Because the capsule and landing vehicle are based on equipment still in early development at NASA, he said, Space Camp had to take more liberties than usual in creating the controls, planning a potential mission and assigning roles to campers.

Space Camp is also looking outside NASA for inspiration. Campers are learning about companies such as Virgin Galactic, which plans to take passengers on suborbital flights for $200,000 per seat, and camp directors are in talks with Bigelow Aerospace, a company working on the next generation of space stations, to incorporate its plans into future camp additions.

“We think it’s important that kids get exposure to the private sector, especially as government funds shrink and the private sector becomes more important,” Flachbart said. Within a few years, he noted, a mock commercial space flight might make its way into the curriculum.

Campers are also looking toward Mars. In the classroom, students are asked to come up with a viable timeline for a mission to the Red Planet, discuss the physical and psychological effects of such a trip and lay out a possible Mars colony.

“We want to excite kids about what they could be doing 20 to 30 years down the road” if they choose a space career, Flachbart said. He added that “the principles underlying our program for the past 29 years don’t change.” Space Camp will continue promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, along with leadership, teamwork and imagination, all of which will prove important as young campers face the realities of possible space careers.

A few weeks before the last shuttle launch, campers said they were hopeful. “It’s disappointing to see the space shuttle program end, but I think our curiosity will push us to explore more,” said Grant Kramer, a 16-year-old camper from Springfield, Ohio, in a phone interview.

“I just want to explore the cosmos,” said 12-year-old camper Ashlyn Byrge from Meridianville, Ala. “There’s so much that’s unknown, and someone has to explore it.”

The younger generation’s spirit was apparent when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met a group of campers in March. After several questions about the future of NASA, Bolden was presented with one of the camp’s “challenge coins.”

“Our challenge is: Get one of these folks to Mars,” said U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s chief executive, Deborah Barnhart, referring to the campers in the audience.

She wasn’t talking about a simulation.