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From the students: International Space Camp 2010 as seen by Kateřina Bernatíková: A Week of a Dream Come True

19. October 2010 It might have been easy to describe the importance of the decision made by the panel that elected the Czech Republic’s representatives for the International Space Camp 2010 international competition. However, it turns out not be so simple, because one of the lucky fellows elected to represent our country was yours truly.

I was only able to take this costly journey to fulfill my dream thanks to a kind contribution by the Educa Foundation, which also helped me obtain a scholarship to study at OPEN GATE and which there is no question supported my progress on the path towards my dream.

… At the moment when the final decision was uttered, an indescribable something took hold of me – joy, enthusiasm, euphoria, but most of all, a conviction that I had not devoted the last half year of preparations and basically seven years of my life to space science in vain. The stage of those preparations and nervousness was closed, but the second stage, the preparations for the “mission” itself, and much more nervousness, only started at that moment…

These emotions overwhelmed me on that March 26, 2010, the day on which the Czech Republic’s representatives were tasked with selecting two high school students who would represent our country in the International Space Camp project. It is a one-week educational program for students hand-picked from 60 countries around the whole world, thanks to which the participants can learn for themselves what it takes to be an astronaut and what the career is like; this entails a large number of lectures, and going through part of real astronaut training and simulated missions at the top-class installations at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, U.S.A. The program is led by professionals, including members of the team of active astronauts.

Difficult to describe my joy. From that moment, I only lived for the holidays, when I would fly a bit closer to NASA than in my dreams. It did not take long, and the date of our departure, July 23, 2010, arrived. All those arrangements to get our U.S. visas, confirmation of medical forms, insurance, etc., were well over by then. At the airport, we said good bye to the Czech Republic for a while and set out and up across the pond. For me personally, the endless flight was a great time. All the time on the plane, I was imagining with glee what was ahead of me and enjoying the beauty of the Atlantic from altitude.

When I landed on the American continent, it was like my traveler’s dream had come true. All of a sudden I was at one of the world’s largest airports and expected to take care of myself and of the way forward. Fortunately, the first thing I discovered about Americans was that they have an unwavering willingness to help. I saw this all the time, again and again, with no exceptions, really up until we met with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center staff at the Huntsville airport. Thereafter, nothing could happen to us under their “protective wings”. They transferred us to our temporary home. The majestic Saturn V, thanks to which the U.S. gained primacy in lunar missions, could already be seen towering from afar. At night we only managed to see the vastness of the entire area, and therefore looked forward all the more to the morning when we could take a look around after waking up into the first day of our stay. At that moment, we only had energy enough not to panic because of our accommodations, which were untraditional indeed. Nevertheless, following my arrival at an event during which I would be supposed to be an astronaut, I did not find the fact that I would live in something somewhere between a prison and a submarine as strange as it might have appeared under normal circumstances.

Before 7 a.m., we were yanked out of our futile attempts at sleep (a temperature shock, when you are dying of heat and more so humidity outside even at midnight and literally freeze at night, although wrapped in the warmest clothes that it had occurred to you to bring along), and, paradoxically, I really welcomed that. It was only then that I had a chance to see both our living quarters and my roommates, as each of us had arrived on a different flight. I shared a “room” with young women from Costa Rica, Norway, Turkey, Washington, and Belgium.
The first day was neither duller nor more relaxed; on the contrary, it was to be a festive day, teeming with prominent guests and luminaries in astronautics. Preparations for this act, the Opening Ceremony, took the whole morning. This is where one feature of the American character could be seen and felt: keep rehearsing everything up to the point of madness, but then, during the event proper, not one mistake is made.

The presentation exuded the spirit of a really ceremonious opening of a major and prestigious event. Thanks were extended for the organization of the event, and wishes were expressed for a successful week that was expected to enrich our lives and direct us towards the fulfillment of our dreams and expectations. The Parade of Nations took the whole evening. Each delegation, sporting their national costumes, was to prepare a performance and so we, the Czechs, took our opportunity to dance a polka and make references to: Mr. Remek as the first representative of a country other than the U.S. and Russia who had been launched to space; Dvořák’s New World Symphony as the first piece of music played in space; Neruda’s Cosmic Songs on board a space shuttle’s recent mission; and the title of this year’s world ice hockey champions.

And on day two, Sunday July 25, our program began to unfold. It was packed tight, from the second we awoke to the moment we collapsed into bed completely exhausted at around 11 p.m. Throughout the week we kept meeting new lecturers, who educated us in fields so well known to us – astronautics, science, technology, physics, astronomy, medicine… in general, the issue of space flight and everything related to it. The lectures were most interesting indeed. Despite the heavy impact of jetlag on my ability to concentrate, I always paid attention and carefully noted everything down in our book, which served as our guidebook in training for our simulated missions. These, after all, were another story per se. Simulated missions were in fact the principal activity that was in store for us during our training and intended to actually show us what an astronaut’s work is all about. Thanks to the top-notch facilities, we could become control center staff, or astronauts on board a space station or shuttle, and get the feel of a mission “on our own skin”.

Astronauts certainly cannot do without a broad range of preparations, and neither could we, which is why we were not placed in control positions immediately but had to go through – in addition to theoretical lectures – practical training, be it at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center encampment or at Area 51, model military training base. At the encampment, this involved everyday training on simulators – walking on the Moon, centrifuges, the Space Shot (a rocket launch tower; when riding on it, you can feel 3G’s), Multi-axis Trainer (a chair with multiple axes to simulate a launched space capsule), the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit, for work during Extravehicular Activity), and also in the various parts of a space station and the orbiter of a space shuttle. The reason is that the installations are exact copies of real-life parts of spaceships. For me this was the experience that brought me closest to space science issues, because you literally touch and feel the environment in which astronauts work.
And Area 51? Those with a weaker nature, including myself for a while when I saw the attractions, looked forward to this least of all. Nevertheless, having overcome such challenging obstacles, it is my recollections of A51 which are the strongest in terms of teamwork. For example, we had to jump off a 10-meter pillar, on the top of which there only was a disk the size of a plate, bounce off an even taller tower and ride down, only hanging on a snap hook on our backs, and thus experience the feeling of a flight … A small taste is enough for the reader to have a picture of how things were at Area 51. It later dawned on me that the main purpose of these more than extreme tasks was to learn to trust and support one another. It is called team building in English, and for astronauts who are on a mission far away from the Earth, packed into only the cubic meters that make up a space ship, team building is crucial. I myself therefore understand why this ability also needs to be a major part of training. I have in fact taken away something that I call, just for fun, “the American spirit” – the support that you feel in an emergency, the feeling that they are standing behind you and believe that you will successfully carry out the task…

The above could also be my summary of the reasons why I was not afraid at all to try almost 4G on a real military centrifuge the following day. And to make the picture complete, the organizers included meetings with such leading lights as the German engineer Mr. Tiesenhausen from Wernher von Braun’s team and the astronaut Story Musgrave, who took part in the repair of the Hubble space telescope, into the content of our week.
The training could not have been richer; on the missions we really felt – depending on the focus of our professions – like NASA professionals. The EDM, a six-hour simulation of an actual mission, was the culmination of the knowledge gained so far.

Following the successful completion of the program, we said good bye at a Graduation Ceremony. In addition to receiving a certificate and the squadron’s badge, we acquired a unique experience that has reassured us that it made sense, and still makes sense, to follow our dreams. Because there, we could get a feeling of what the profession is like; but in the future it will perhaps be thanks to these experiences that we will not have to only try things, but actually do them.

My thanks go to the Educa Foundation for the week that made my childhood dream come true. In no case has this dream died out because of the week. Quite the contrary, the week has reassured the dreamer that she had not erred in choosing her dream.

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