At Space Camp – Seeking Out Sightless Astronomy in Alabama Pt. 1

On September 27, I embarked on my second voyage to the United States (happy belated Columbus Day, American mates!); to the Southern city of Huntsville, Alabama to participate in a weeklong event known as Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (hereinafter referred to simply as SCIVIS or Space Camp). In my “week in space”, I transformed from my geeky quiet self to a jokey extrovert, went from 179 strangers as fellow participants to 15 close teammates and several other great acquaintances, travelled without a chaperon but returned with a bunch of kind, caring and gifted teachers of the visually impaired who viewed me as their own student, and lived some days of my life so fun-filled, informative, and cherishable that the nostalgia of the experience will forever remain.

It all began in March 2017 when a unanimously positive flurry of reviews for a certain astronomy-related camp in the Facebook community caught my attention. I applied last year, but due to documentation-related inadequacies by the prescribed deadline failed, yet missed out on the opportunity only to another meritorious candidate and a great friend of mine from the Northern parts of India who got selected and made the most of SCIVIS 2017 instead. Pertinacious I decided to retry in 2018, successfully became one of the Lighthouse Vision scholarship recipients, and was fortunate to attend SCIVIS 2018. In the weeks and months of anticipation from April through September, I filled out some registration forms, worked with Space Camp’s affiliated travel agency to get my flight itinerary in place, conducted a fair amount of preliminary research about what I should be expecting as part of my Space Camp experience, and worked a tad bit on brushing up my Braille skills.

As I boarded the airplane early morning on September 27, I wondered how the coming week would transpire and what it would bring afresh. I had a rough picture of the same, but that picture was far from complete, as Space Camp was going to be so, so much more than what I had conceived. I travelled from Mumbai to London, changed flights to travel ahead from London to Dallas, and after a brief layover where I incidentally met a friendly group of SCIVIS participants and chaperons from Australia, finally went to Huntsville, Alabama, United States. At the Huntsville International Airport, I was greeted by Space Camp transport crew, one of whom revealed the identity of a cartoon character whose sticker was strung to the strap of my suitcase as Baymax from Big Euro 6, while the other was to show me around the habitat and museum that night and the following day.

What struck me immediately was the earnestness of both of these individuals to orient me to the residential building, my floor, the staircase, and their resolve to get me familiarized and navigating my surroundings independently with my cane. This spirit of imparting the information and encouragement necessary for blind and visually impaired students to be confident and self-reliant agents underscored SCIVIS and carried through the remainder of my time at the US Space and Rocket Centre. I was allocated my room, settled in, had pseudo-dinner that night, phone called my parents and some relatives in the States, and called it a day. I woke up the following day on a pleasant Friday morning, had some breakfast, met several crew trainers some of whom I would be directly working with and others I would only meet occasionally throughout the course of the coming week, and commenced a tour of the museum.

One of the two individuals who had picked me up from the airport, a kindly lady, showed me around the different exhibits at the US Space and Rocket Centre museum; shuttles, capsules and engines from the Apollo 11 mission, other American and Russian space race artefacts, aeronautical simulations, some of which I was permitted to tactually explore while others I procured information about. As we were scouting the museum for more absorbing presentations, I met a participant, let’s call him the Sheepherder (only he would understand the etymology :D), and his chaperon, a very congenial gentleman, all the way from New Zealand. As we continued our saunter in the museum and as more participants started arriving, I discovered that Sheepherder was going to be both my teammate and roommate. Subsequently, we grabbed some lunch, before we moved over to a room called Leo where I was immediately but temporarily engrossed by a game machine called Bop It! On which I racked up a respectable score of 55 within my initial few attempts. Then, among other things, I played several hours of hilariously thrilling Monopoly ( a board game) with Sheepherder and his chaperon, toured the US Space and Rocket Centre some more, and then revisited the cafeteria to have dinner.

In large part, September 28 and 29 were mostly spent in meeting new people; Space Camp staff, blind and visually impaired campers, their vision teachers and engaging in pleasantries over mealtimes. Among the multiplicity of folks I interacted with on those two days, some notable ones include a Japanese-origin blind Biology student living in Australia, a group of vision-impaired kids from Georgia (with their singular Southern accents), a Liberia-born Canadian girl with 26 siblings, a blind kid who wraps and another who beatboxes amazingly well. After a couple days of fun and frivolities, the actual event did begin – 3:00 p.m., September 29, 2018.

The cumulative energy in the campers was evident in our applause during the orientation session, wherein we were briefed about rules prohibiting untimely use of our personal digital assistants (essentially our digital devices) as well as the public display of aggression (discourteous behaviour), of acceleration (running) and of affection (no elaboration required for this one, I trust?). Many of us were first-timers at Space Camp whereas some were returning to this event for second, third and even fifth time. Nonetheless, when our team names were declared, we congregated, went to the cafeteria for some casual chatter, and stimulated a fire drill to fulfil formal requirements. Subsequently, we, Team Isidis as we were named, grouped together for a round of introductory icebreaker. As we learnt then, team Isidis comprised of physicists, musicians, Apple and Nickelback fans, a judo practitioner, a children’s book author, and what not. The plurality in the composition of our team, as was the case for many of the other 15 odd teams at SCIVIS 2018, actually deepened the diversity and consequently unity of the cohort.

Even in our initial acquaintances, the 16 of us from 7 different countries (Canada, Germany, India, Israel, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States) in Team Isidis started bonding over subjects like Israel’s 2018 Eurovision Song Contest victory, dining etiquettes in our respective countries, quirky phrases in our own regional languages, global issues such as Brexit and gun control, and the list goes on. Before anybody knew it, it was time for the opening ceremony of Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students 2018. 179 campers, 12 countries, and an infectiously invigorated atmosphere was what marked the beginning of the 29th iteration of SCIVIS.

As part of the opening ceremony, international students and scholarship recipients were expected to deliver 2-minute presentations pertaining to their country of origin, city/town, school, their own introduction and something in their native tongue. A camper from Deep Down Under stated that he was most proud of the fact that in Australia, if you leave your house there is a good chance that a wild animal could kill you, while my Japanese-origin buddy couldn’t stop boasting about his high-quality Japanese toilets. I delivered a well-received monologue myself, whose nearly verbatim textual transcription is as follows:

“Namaste America. I am Bhavya Sha, and I am a 16-year-old kid who has come all the way from India. I doubt many would have heard of this tiny homogenous nation in South Asia. After all, India is home to just about 1658 different languages, more than 2000 distinct ethnic groups, and just a little bit over 1.352 billion human beings. So yes, India is a small country. (Calculate how many zeroes there are in 1 billion. Meanwhile, I shall continue my presentation.) I live in a beautiful city in Western India called Mumbai, popular for being the heart of the Indian film industry. Think of it this way; just like Los Angeles is to Hollywood, Mumbai is to Bollywood. So yes, I am the lucky one surrounded by all the Bollywood movie stars. At present, I am an eleventh grader, equivalent to the junior year of high school, and am pursuing the Science stream, which entails the subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Computer Science. Apart from the usual academics, I represent my school in competitive events such as, but not limited to debating championships and IT quizzes and Math Olympiads and Model United Nations conferences. In conclusion, I would like to say that we all currently know each other merely as fellow blind and visually impaired campers from different parts of the world, but I sincerely hope that by the end of our week in space, we will have spent some treasurable moments together and mingled to kindle lifelong friendships. At this point, I would also like to express my gratitude to the St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind for facilitating and sponsoring this wonderful opportunity. Thank you so very much. Without taking up much more of your time, let me leave you all with some lines from one of my favourite short poems in Hindi –
मंज़िल मिले ना मिले – Whether or not we achieve our goal
ये तो मुकद्दर की बात है – That is for destiny to decide
पर हम कोशिश ही ना करे – But if we don’t even make an attempt
ये तो गलत बात है – That is a mistake we must avoid
Dhanyavad and I look forward to an exciting time at SCIVIS 2018!”

After the culmination of an enjoyable set of speeches from different parts of the globe, we regrouped into our respective teams and walked back to the habitat. On the way back, I had an animated conversation with a Canadian chaperon about chemical bonding and a related hypothesis which ended up failing, listened serenely to the sound of crickets in in the night, and comparatively analyzed inclusive education in India and Canada. Reaching our habitat, we retired to our rooms, in which I exchanged introductions with my roommates – Sheepherder from New Zealand, Rendsburg from Germany, and Jake Paul from Missouri (yes, the nickname did greatly annoy him). That was a relatively tranquil and uneventful night, unlike the ones which were to follow. All of us slept well on September 29, eager to uncover what SCIVIS 2018 had in store for us in the succeeding days.

Author: Bhavya Shah

I am a 16-year-old techie, quizzer, debater and Potter+Musk-head from Mumbai, India, and I am Passionate about STEM, world politicss, and disability rights. When I am not burdened by school homework (which I never bother doing anyways) nor busy blogging, you might either find me programming in Python, reading a contemporary classic, or aimlessly perusing the Internet. Also, by the way, I forgot to mention something; I can't see a thing, lost all my eyesight by the age of 11, and I'm totally blind. That's me.

3 thoughts on “At Space Camp – Seeking Out Sightless Astronomy in Alabama Pt. 1”

  1. Very well written, Bhavya. I am Sandhya Nagraj. I happened to attend SCIVIS as a chaperone with a VI student in 2016
    I too am from Mumbai but now settled in Pune. Would like to see you, may be during one of my visits to Mumbai

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe I have heard about some SCIVIS participant by the name of Mansi, if I am not mistaken, from India in 2016. Were you the chaperon of the same by any chance? In any case, glad you enjoyed the read and do reach out when you are next visiting Mumbai.


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