At Space Camp – Seeking Out Sightless Astronomy in Alabama Pt. 3

Before reading on, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of the At Space Camp – Seeking Out Sightless Astronomy in Alabama series.

“They say that in the Army the coffee’s mighty fine
It looks like muddy water and tastes like turpentine
Oh Lord, I wanna go
But they won’t let me go
Oh Lord, I wanna go hoo-hoo-hoooome EH!”

These were the lyrics echoing in the bus carrying the 16 of us in Team Isidis to the activity area. Following the lead of a Space Camp instructor, we all sang in unison words that made little sense yet were comically captivating. But the bus was not adrift; it was taking us someplace where we would test ourselves and overcome our fears. At Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, as much as we worked on mission stimulations, learnt about space history, and underwent astronaut training, a huge part of the week in space was to create an environment where everyone was encouraged to dare to exceeed their own expectations. One way in which that manifested were the high rope elements: to zipline, we had to climb walls, and to glide in the skies, we had to ascend a pamper pole.

Truthfully, I am not particularly scared of heights, adventures or unknowns in general, and I personally have never been daunted by these activities myself. However, I do fully empathize with those who have genuine phobias that deter them from even giving such thrilling activities a go. Climbing my way up to the ziplining spot was enjoyable, but the fact that my comrade in the climb, Predator from Wisconsin, set aside his initial reluctance to participate and gave it a shot anyways, and succeeded in making it to the top for that matter, was significantly more heartwarming. In spite of preliminary reservations and hesitations, every single member of my team dared, attempted, and conquered the challenges of the high rope elements.

When we were not engaged in these recreations, we were busy building models of heatshields, rovers, and rockets. The rocket construction was assisted, but those of the heatshield and the rover were not, and demanded us to improvise using available resources. For instance, incase of the heatshield, we had to pick limited quantities of material such as lasagne noodles, speckle, aluminium foil, etc. to minimize the number of points we spent (from a total of 100) and maximize the effectiveness of our heatshield in protecting a wax egg from a propane-emitting blowtorch. In my heatshield team of four, we tried to identify the best insulators from the materials available, picked the lightest coloured wax egg as our astronaut hoping that it would absorb the least light, and considered the effects, in terms of chemical reactivity, of factors like conduction and convection, the presence of a carbon compound, among other things. I should admit that despite all efforts, our astronaut was not entirely saved and he did experience partial disintegration when subjected to more than 2 minutes of a blistering assault by the blowtorch.

Each night at SCIVIS, we also were given presentations on a multitude of subjects, subjects like the handling of medical anomalies in the ISS, the space race explained from the Russian lens, as well as a lesson in the Russian language itself, a language whose knowledge is a prerequisite to being part of the ISS crew of any country. One day, we were allowed to experience our solar system, different celestial bodies, and other space related phenomena through their tactile models along with some of their sonified representations. On another occasion, we were addressed by two blind NASA scientists – one a chemist and the other a mathematician – who shared their inspiring journeys of getting involved in STEM research for an aeronautical agency in the face of their disability.

To sum up, Space Camp was a ceaseless continuum of meeting different people, cogitating ideas, and processing new information. For me, SCIVIS symbolized the ability to travel to the opposite part of the globe, manage my belongings, conduct myself, and possess the capacity to be an autonomous unit. Without a doubt in my mind, the SCIVIS week was one of the more memorable span of seven days I have spent in my 17 years of existence. A primary reason for how smooth all events transpired were the incredibly kind-hearted teachers for the visually impaired who had accompanied their respective students to Space Camp. I had come with none, but each of my teammates’ chaperons were amazingly approachable: comparing availability of accessibility resources for blind high schoolers in different countries with the Canadian chaperons, having the German and Israeli chaperons themselves offer to videograph some of my activities, touring the US Space and Rocket Centre with the New Zealand chaperon, receiving some assistance at the airport from the Maryland chaperon, and the list goes endlessly on.

I should also recognize the Space Camp staff – SCIVIS coordinator Mr. Dan Oates, my crew trainers Larry Page and Live-In-The-Moment, the transport crew, the chefs, and so many others – for putting up with my plethora of questions, for always being responsive to my needs (dietary or otherwise), for resolving any of my uncertainties, and for being the driving forces behind such an experience. I cannot thank these individuals enough. Most importantly however, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind, the organisation that sponsored all expenditure pertaining to my trip, from logistics to camp tuition. It is highly unlikely that students such as myself and several of the other scholarship recipients would have been able to attend in the absence of financial assistance. It is because of the generosity of the St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind that dozens of students from across the globe – students such as I – are able to be part of SCIVIS each year.

On the night of October 4, it was time to conclude the week, and graduate all campers as Space Camp alumni. Let me be a little self-centred in order to be succinct; below is a nearly verbatim textual transcription of the graduation speech by one of my team’s crew trainer, Live-In-The-Moment:

“Good evening. My name is {Live-In-The-Moment}, and along with {Larry Page}, I had the privilege of leading Team Isidis.
On Saturday, we started out as 16 individuals from 7 different countries with different visual impairments. I didn’t know how I was going to bring them together as a team. I asked them to tell each other a little bit about themselves, and in case you haven’t noticed, they haven’t stopped talking since. If you have been in the cafeteria in the mealtimes, you have probably been able to listen to our show choir. If not, you have missed one of the best renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody that I have heard since Freddie Mercury himself. Now, Team Isidis, I am very humbled and proud to be your team leader. You have shown me this week what it’s like to make friends, complete friends. You opened up and shared things about yourselves that most people would be afraid to. You cheered each other on and encouraged the best out of each other. I don’t know how you did it.
Now, Team Isidis, what is my motto? Live in the moment! And in this moment, we are going to celebrate you as graduates at Space Camp.”

And with that, SCIVIS 2018 came to an end. I spent the remaining time with my teammates heartily, celebrated the birthday of a friend from another team that incidentally fell on graduation day, and bid everybody farewell as I departed next afternoon. Nearly two months have passed between then and now, and even though I have resumed engineering coaching, appeared for the SAT exam (awaiting results declaration on December 1), preparing for debate nationals which are a month away, my memory is fresh with the SCIVIS experience as if it were only yesterday. I am still in contact – via WhatsApp and Facebook – with a bunch of my SCIVIS friends, and we frequently reminisce about times at camp. As much as I would like to attend SCIVIS a second time, I am cognizant of the improbability of being granted a scholarship a second time over other newcomers who have never even participated once. All I can say is that I do sincerely hope that the maximum number of blind and visually impaired students are rendered with the opportunity to attend Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, so that they, too, can realize that “Just because I can’t see the stars, doesn’t mean I can’t reach for them”.


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.

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