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.

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

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