Inside the Space Camp Designed for Blind and Visually Impaired Kids

U.S. Space Camp
U.S. Space Camp

Seventeen-year-old William Hedlund’s favorite part of NASA's Space Camp is the simulators, from the one-sixth gravity chair to the mock flights and missions. He loves the in-depth experience—a taste of what it’s like for actual astronauts in training or in space. He's your typical teenager dreaming of space travel, except for one thing: He's blind.

Hedlund, who is from Seattle, is one of the 750,000 people who have gotten a taste of astronaut training since Space Camp, held at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was launched in 1982. It's a famous program; there was even a movie about it. But few know about the tailored camp that Hedlund has attended for the past three years: Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (SCIVIS), a program for kids from 4th to 12th grade.

“I don’t have the chance to connect with many visually impaired people of my age, so it’s great to be there and make that connection," Hedlund tells Mental Floss. "We exchange techniques about how to get around our visual impairments and enjoy the camaraderie with each other.”

During the weeklong program, participants stay in Space Camp’s dorm facilities, which are set up to look like "futuristic space stations," with tubular compartments and tunnels attached to a main silo, silver concave doors leading to dorm rooms with colorful bunk beds, and a cafeteria. They spend their time on simulators, completing astronaut-training missions, and conquering physical challenges like climbing a rock wall and scuba diving. There's a graduation ceremony, too.

In the 27 years of SCIVIS, more than 3800 students from almost every state and more than 20 countries have attended. About 50 kids a year get scholarships that cover up to half of the program cost ($795, or $895 for an advanced academy high schoolers can attend). An estimated $500,000 has been awarded throughout the life of the program; the last four years have hit about $70,000 in scholarship funding through supporters including Delta Gamma, Northrop Grumman, the Teubert Charitable Trust, and Lighthouse for the Blind-St. Louis. (Prior to that, it was only between $4000 and $10,000 a year.)


Girls attending Space Camp walk together under the Pathfinder space shuttle exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Students come from all over the world, each with a chaperone—a professional educator from their school or district specializing in the education of the blind and visually impaired—who acts as a technical assistant for the staff.

One of those specialized educators is Dana La Curan, an orientation and mobility specialist with the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. La Curan brought two visually impaired students—a senior and a 7th grader—to SCIVIS in September 2016. The senior, who is blind, told La Curan that her favorite experience was scuba diving; she had never felt weightlessness before.

The program tries to stick to the same camp experience nondisabled students have, including everything from the camp instructors to the manuals in use. The staff doesn’t get any special training, nor does Space Camp bring in a special team for the week. The instructors do, however, attend a pre-camp workshop or two on “blind etiquette,” La Curan tells Mental Floss. The pre-camp workshops are a way to avoid moments of panic—“Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh my god, I just asked a blind student if they could see something!’ and we have to tell them, ‘It’s OK to use that word,’” La Curan says—and to share some tips on working with visually impaired students in general. The chaperones with each student generally intervene only if needed.

But the kids do get some equipment and materials that are tailored for their abilities. According to program coordinator Dan Oates, all the materials for the week are available in braille, large print, or electronic magnification, and the overall schedule is tweaked to allow more time for training. Before camp activities start, the students are screened to ensure the simulators won’t aggravate their eye condition. Once camp is under way, the Mission Control room has screen enlargement software and synthesized speech available, as well as braille keypads and special headphones that process two audio signals.


To help students with blindness or low vision, SCIVIS staff provides large-type manuals, magnifying glasses, and braille to help students with their Space Camp experience. In this photo, a boy follows his part in the mission control script in a Space Camp simulated mission to the International Space Station.


A key pad in Space Camp’s mission control is equipped with braille to allow blind students to participate in their Space Camp missions.

During the camp, blind or visually impaired NASA employees come to speak with the students. Hedlund says that meeting NASA professionals with his disability was one of the more powerful parts of the experience. “It opens doors to the possible career paths we can take besides just a typical job,” he says. “It shows it’s possible for visually impaired students to achieve their dreams. Working at NASA becomes a really achievable goal.”

Every challenge the students face focuses on empowering them, introducing important skills in addition to space-themed activities. The rock wall, for example, encourages use of spacial concepts not often used by kids with visual disabilities.

“Once they leave the ground, to them, they could be 5 inches up or 50 feet up,” La Curan says. “They have no concept of [the height], yet they tackle these things like there’s nothing to it. It’s really hard for them to get spacial concepts, but in the climbing wall they have to learn. You can’t tell them to move their hand an inch to reach a handhold, because they don’t know what an inch is. They can’t see rulers. They’re learning skills that a visual student would not be learning.”

A main theme is allowing the kids to complete the activities on their own. Students are paired up so they can play off one another’s strengths; for example, a blind student will be paired with one who can read large print. They work together (with aid from the staff and chaperones only if needed).

“So many times they are told that they have to rely on someone else to help them,” La Curan says. “Here, they help each other. We don’t guide them. They’re capable. A lot of them find that a very interesting and new experience, because they’re used to people doing everything for them, and now they get to do everything for themselves.”

That sense of independence is broadened by the opportunity to meet others battling the same issues. Many human social cues are visual—like making a face when you don’t like something—so blind and visually impaired kids tend to be shy, or have a slightly lower level of social skills because they can’t see those cues, La Curan says. But the kids coming to SCIVIS from all over the world are able to communicate without worrying about visual cues. Their particular challenges become normalized, and in some cases, they’re able to help each other overcome social awkwardness.

“Blind and visually impaired students, for the most part, rarely get the chance to socialize with their peers,” Oates says. “They may attend school daily, but are often on the fringe, and not part of a social group or team. There is great power in like-minded individuals gathering for a common cause.”

All images courtesy of U.S. Space Camp

Editor's note: This post has been updated with details about scholarship funding and a correction of the overall numbers of SCIVIS participants.

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
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The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
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As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
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The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
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Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
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The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
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The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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