"We saw a commercial for space camp on Disney Channel about two and a half years ago," Anthony Iacono said. "We sent away for information so that we could go."
U.S. Space Camp, the largest camp operation in the United States, has been running since 1982, graduating about 300,000 campers. Its programs in Alabama are operated by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission. Along with sister facilities in California and Florida, it is owned and operated by the U.S. Space Camp Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the American Camping Association.
Activities include simulated Space Shuttle missions, IMAX movies, training simulators (like the 1/6th Gravity Chair), rocket building and launches, scientific experiments, and lectures on the past, present and future of space exploration.
"Our team had about 12 people," Iacono said. "But there were about 200 campers altogether during the parent weekend."
Although the camp is normally a five-day program that provides astronaut training for young people, the camp also offers a parent-child weekend excursion on which Iacono could accompany his son.
During the week, Iacono said, the program has about 800 campers, and when he and his son checked in on Friday, the boys from the week-long camp were checking out.
"It's very similar to camps for football, baseball or basketball," he said. "In the case, the camp teaches you about space flight."
The program was designed to give both parent and child an overview of space exploration, while experiencing very real space simulations.
"Each morning we got up about 7 a.m. and made our way to the mess hall for breakfast," Iacono said. After an 8 a.m. breakfast on one morning, Iacono and his son took a trip on the 1/6 Gravity Chair which gave them the sensation of walking on the moon. During this, they were introduced to Apollo History, a program that explores the history, present and future of manned space flight.
"We went to class rooms each day," Iacono said. "One class was about living in space. In that one, we learned about all the crazy things astronauts had to do in order to accomplish ordinary things: How did they go to the bathroom, how did they sleep, how did they work upside down."
The two were introduced to the Space Station Mobility trainer and the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) used by shuttle astronauts to maneuver in space, and the Five Degrees of Freedom trainer, which simulates movements in microgravity.
Before lunch, the two underwent what was called Mission Training, followed by Mission Script Rehearsal. The mission is central to the camp's program.
"After lunch we went into the simulator. This is something similar to a space shuttle in orbit. We had a radio and controls. We each had titles. Paul and I were mission specialists. Another father and son were the pilot and commander. A granddaughter and grandmother were mission specialists, too."
Each of them learned about communication and how to handle a vast array of complicated equipment. The simulations and the equipment are very close to the kind used by the actual astronauts, yet adapted so that children seven to 11 can handle them.
"The next day, we worked at ground control," Iacono said. "Paul was control command director, I was the information officer. I had to monitor what was going on with the team in space, then report it to the press." If something went wrong in the space simulation side, bells would ring in ground control, and the parent and child teams would have to correct the problem.
"It was not only a great learning experience, but a great bonding experience between children and parents," Iacono said.
Iacono and Paul paid a visit to Hydroponics Lab, where food theoretically would be grown in space. It is a kind of technology that allows plants to be generated in lab dishes using chemical nutrients. They also attended a class about rocket construction and got to shoot off scale models they built. Some of these rose nearly 1,000 feet into the air.
After reporting back to the mess hall for super each night, the two viewed films in a state of the art Imax Theater, then returned to what camp instructors called habitat to sleep.
"For three days we walked around in flight jump suits and carried clipboards," Iacono said. "They kept us busy from early in the morning until nearly 10 o'clock at night. It was a great experience."