At Space Camp – Seeking Out Sightless Astronomy in Alabama Pt. 2

Well-rested and bubbling with excitement, we freshened up, descended the stairs, hunted for and joint our respective teams, and got ready for Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students 2018. At this point, I find it essential to give you a rundown of the structure of the teams, programs and activities at SCIVIS. 179 blind and visually impaired kids from 12 countries, most of whom had been accompanied by a chaperon (not me though, I go solo), were enrolled in programs such as Space Academy, Robotics, Aviation Challenge, and Advanced Space Academy and were sorted into teams of 15 students at an average. Teams at SCIVIS 2018 included Aries, Andromeda, Deimos, Elysium and many more and each team was led by one day trainer and another night trainer. As for me, I was part of Team Isidis in the Advanced Space Academy with my two trainers being… Live-In-The-Moment and Larry Page, shall we call them? (Coming up with veiling yet meaningful aliases is harder than I originally thought.) Just to be clear, Isidis is not a word in some alien language, but an actual name of a plain on Mars.

Back to the real feature though, we kickstarted our adventure on an educational note, touring a formerly unexplored part of the museum where we learnt about Miss Able and Miss Baker, two monkeys launched into space by the United States back in the late 1950s, trivia related to the milestones and timeline of achievements by both the USA and the USSR during the space race, and other history about the human exploration of the dark skies. Since there may not be another opportune moment in this blog post to refer to this museum again, let me share a little about the other times over the course of the week that we returned, messed around, learnt some more and got more enriched by the marvels at this museum. On one occasion, we busied ourselves – Jake Paul, Sheepherder, another teammate I shall name Nikiback from Canada, and I – in constructing with Lego-styled blocks and pieces something that would be a product of our imagination and craftsmanship. The four of us managed to come up with a cuboid, something that remotely resembled a crab and its pincers, a pyramid-like tower, and several other creations which we could correlate with nothing sensible in particular. Another time, Rendsburg, another Canadian chaperon, and I listened to a retired NASA scientist describe in great depth the process of launching and safely returning a rocket all the way to and from the Moon, an account I found quite insightful and intriguing. My most distinct memory of the museum however is when a bunch of other teammates and I stumbled across an astronomical playground area – we crawled or stoop to move around, inserted our heads through an opening to appear like astronauts from the other end, and sat on tiny seats with non-functional controls to navigate an imaginary spacecraft; basically behaving like babies who had found their space paradise.

Moving on from the museum, we went someplace more photogenic for a photograph of the 16 members of Team Isidis. After doing a typical picture (and then a funny photograph on Rendsburg’s request), we filed into another room and split into groups of 4. We were enlightened about the water filtration process used in space and rendered with the somewhat repugnant piece of information that astronauts purified their own urine to a degree greater than the purity of our drinking water here on Earth and consumed their filtered urine as water itself. Subsequently, the four quartets of Team Isidis were each assigned the task of devising a filter that would clean up some muddy water of the dirt, gravel and other unwanted substances. The four of us – Sheepherder, two teammates I shall call Stephen Hawking from England and Marylander from Maryland, and I – applied our knowledge of acids, bases, and separation of chemicals, picked out a set of materials we desired to employ, and arranged them to produce a water filter that proved to be rather effective. We also engaged in some rock climbing before heading over to lunch, but the scarcity of perceptible footholds and ledges on the wall (and a rumbling stomach too, to be honest) prevented me from making it to the top.

Post lunch, we braced ourselves for the true challenge we had all signed up for – mission training in the space shuttle, International Space Station (ISS), and Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) wherever we were positioned. We were all allotted our roles and responsibilities encompassed by the same and given a comprehensive overview of how we would accomplish our tasks. All instruction manuals were offered in uncontracted Braille, contracted Braille, large print and regular print, switches and buttons were Brailled, and our consoles (cathode ray tubes as they are termed) had built-in talking software. At SCIVIS, every reasonable accommodation was made available and there was never any question of how we, as blindies, would be able to do something. As the Payload Communications Manager (PayCom), I was the sole link between the MOCR and the ISS and was expected to assist the ISS crew (which consisted of Nikiback, and three other teammates whom we may call High Schooler from Israel, Opera Singer from South Carolina, and Floridian from Florida). To my credit, I did aid my ISS crew in resolving a battery related anomaly after some confusion and delay, but my performance was also condusive to some mishaps at the ISS (in a fun way). Something along the following lines took place on the intercom between PayCom (me) and the ISS (its four afore mentioned members):

ISS: We have a battery problem. Help us.
Me (whilst hunting in my flight manual for relevant instructions): I ain’t got no spare batteries out here. Sorry.
ISS: Hurry up. We are dying.
Me (the scrappy Braille reader that is I still going through the book): Slow down. Take a deep breath and let go.
ISS: We will all die and you will be responsible for it.
Me: Look, everybody has got to die someday. Better now than later. Additionally, I promise to deliver batteries on to your graves so that your souls may rest in peace.
ISS (roaring with laughter): Come on, Bhavya!

I did discover the solution to the specified anomaly, conveyed the same, and had the problem fixed before things got too bad. However, once my job was complete for the time being and I had to simply monitor and report different data, I got a little mischievous and decided to do the following:

Me: Hey. I see a backup anomaly. Do you read me?
ISS: No caution or warning is being displayed at our end. Can you recheck?
Me: Look harder guys.
ISS: How do we look any harder?
Me: I don’t think you are pressing the buttons hard enough. Press them harder maybe.
ISS (in splits again): Okay, we’ve got you.

Nonetheless, the biggest highlight of Space Camp for me was not only the extended duration mission we trained for, stimulated and successfully performed, but also the witty and on-point blind jokes we kept cracking at every fitting instant. These were those jokes that only we, as visually impaired kids, could fully comprehend and laugh heartily at. I must confess that I am not particularly comfortable with jokes on my disability, but out at SCIVIS, they seemed to be so organic, well-timed and hilarious, that I couldn’t refrain from cracking a few blind jokes every now and then myself.

Mission Instructor (to one of my teammates): EGIL, you are the Electrical Generation and Illumination in-charge. You must ensure that power, lighting and electricity is always in order.
Us: We don’t need no lighting for we are the blind kids. Don’t worry about the illumination or failing your job, EGIL.

After a fun mission, we reunited and scampered off to get ourselves some dinner. Even though I breeze through mealtimes in my narration, I should emphasize that these were the moment that enabled us as a team to be reflective, get to know and bond with each other, have unhinged conversations about cows and octopi, excessively sugary American food, audio description for different multimedia content, and a multiplicity of other otherworldly subjects, and indulge in some truly crazy competitions. On one of the following nights, my teammate High Schooler (I call her that since she is so keen and impatient to graduate high school) encouraged about six of us to guzzle down the sugarshock; a drink she had invented by blending about 15 different cold drinks, teas, coffees, juices and other drinkable liquids available at the counters along with ice to give us the time of our lives. We held a race for this taxing task and even though I got rather competitive, I stood second to another teammate of mine, whom we may call Predator from Wisconsin. This exercise actually repeated in that High Schooler and I had placed a bet on what tacos in the US exactly are, which both of us lost on some level, and thus had to conduct a second round of consumption of an even nastier and weirder sugarshock which High Schooler energetically prepared for me and herself.

When we were not blabbering about random topics under the sun or getting ingenious with drinks, Team Isidis was famous for its spontaneous musical performances. Whenever there was a moment to spare – during a meal, walking down a hallway, sitting back down after an exerting activity – some phenomenal singers I am privileged to call my teammates would break into song; Bruno Mars, Elvis Presley, Pentatonics, etc. so much so that our crew trainer Live-In-The-Moment was forced to publicly comment that our team had produced one of the best renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody that she had ever heard since Freddie Mercury. Two songs that we frequently sang in our team were Sweet Home Alabama and Take Me Home Country Roads (a song associated with West Virginia). These two songs, even if I still don’t know their lyrics all that well, signify and capture all that I did and experienced and learnt at SCIVIS 2018, and even when I play these on my phone, all the friendships and fondness I experienced in Huntsville, Alabama come flooding back.

After dinner, we rode a bus to Area 51 where we had to build bridges to reach two subsequent islands under constraint conditions. We achieved that rather simply, and then journeyed back to the US Space and Rocket Centre to ride the Multi-Axis Trainer, a stimulator of omnidirectional motion for which astronauts underwent training in a similar fashion. While waiting for our turns, my teammate Stephen Hawking and I were avidly discussing physics, the complexity of the subject and the immensity of the universe, and we were joint midway by High Schooler who put forward a thought-provoking theory of her own for our serious consideration – What if the Universe is shaped like a doughnut? After riding the MAT and actually analyzing the doughnut theory, we talked about some other existential questions such as the probability of life after death and whether it was even desirable to hold such a belief. Believe it or not, by the end of our walk back to the habitat however, our conversation had drifted off from science and reality to American TV shows and movies such as Friends, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, etc.

7 in the morning to 10 in the night – thus was the daily schedule at camp. The hectic day failed however to exhaust Rendsburg or me to the point that we would doze off the moment we hit our rooms. On the contrary, Rendsburg, a proficient judoka, showed me some basic but impressive moves of the martial art, which I found fairly straightforward but strikingly suited for a blind person for the objectives of self-defence as well as offense. A little astronomy, a little music, a little judo, a little learning about the universe and a little fooling around is in a nuthshell what happened in my initial days at Space Camp.

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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.

4 thoughts on “At Space Camp – Seeking Out Sightless Astronomy in Alabama Pt. 2”

    1. I recall that you had shared at one point that you were to undergo a surgery after camp, so I ascribed the delay in approving the post to your more pressing medical requirements. Anyways, I hope you have recovered from the same, my own apologies for this delayed reply (I have been bulldozed by academics in recent times), and I am glad that you enjoyed the read!

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