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.)
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.
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.