We went to bed exhausted but awoke refreshed, kind of. The morning for started with breakfast from room service. We wanted to make sure we packed a lot of protein in our diet before what we figured would be a long day. We suited up in our flight suits and headed over the Hab to meet the other members of the team before we headed to the dining hall, where we — if only to be polite — had “second breakfast.” We then went on a tour of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s (USSRC’s) Rocket Hall.
The USSRC is a Smithsonian Affiliate and the Official Visitor Center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Our team leader Amanda McBride gave us the tour, offering insight into the history of the facility and the history of manned space flight. The center is known to have one of the largest collections of rockets and space memorabilia in the world. The whole time you’re in the center you can’t help but to repeatedly gaze in awe at the 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket hanging horizontally from the ceiling.
We all then lined up from tallest to shortest, proving we could follow directions, for a portrait of Team Pioneer in front of a full-sized display of the moon lander. With the team picture taken care of we headed across campus to an open field and a rocket launch facility. We had each made a model rocket on day one and now it was time for them to fly. We watched as most of them blasted straight off, deployed their parachutes and came gently back to the ground. Amanda and I were the exceptions. Amanda’s rocket landed on the road and got run over multiple times. Mine ended up in a tree on the far side of the field. I honestly felt like my childhood self; I recall many encounters with kite-eating trees.
Mission to Mars
Next, we made our way down to the simulation center for the big activity of the day, the mission to Mars. I was on assigned to the expedition and Amanda was in charge of mission control. We loaded up in the command module and began our three-hour mission to Mars and back. I was the DDT or Digital Data Technician, which meant running the communication equipment. Yeah, not too far from my real life. We did a simulated launch, then had to access through a crawlspace the lander called Altair. The pilot and the commander had most of the duties for those two parts of the mission. We had to act like we were opening an airlock to a near vacuum and had to make sure our EVA suits were on correctly or we’d get penalized because if a suit wasn’t on right in real life that could mean death. I spent the next several hours hooking up and tearing down communications equipment. The DDTs were also tasked with the scavenger hunt that brings in supplies that have been “dropped” from orbit.
The return trip was the worst part of the whole trip. We spent what seemed like hours in Altair and the temperature seemed to do nothing but climb. The extreme heat wasn’t part of the scenario; five adults, no air flow, and extreme heat outside made the lander an oven. We toughed it out, though, and made it back to Earth in one piece.
A bus came by and carried the team to the center’s confidence and leadership course. We split into two teams and trainers asked us to solve various challenges as a team. The one that was the most interesting involved dumping three tennis balls from one bucket to another without touching the buckets or the balls. We only had three lengths of rope to accomplish the task. I take credit for leading the team and creating the plan that completed the challenge.
The day didn’t end there, either. A thunderstorm began to roll in and we had to take shelter in the large building they had the multi-axis trainers in. We were given a task of designing a mission patch for Team Pioneer. As a team of adults we were lucky to have two professional designers in our midst. We spent the next hour working on that before braving the rain and heading to one of the classrooms to design our own heat shields. The team was broken into groups and given a list of supplies we could “buy” with points. We chose cork, steel wool, wire mesh, spackle and aluminum foil. The idea was to create a shield that would keep a raw egg from being cooked by the heat of a blowtorch in a span of three minutes. The group had some success and some failure; we were failures. We did well but the shield broke down with a minute to go.
The evening was capped off by a lecture on the International Space Station (ISS) and its operations. We learned one of the most awesome inventions ever was created for an Italian astronaut, an espresso machine that works in microgravity. The Italians even developed a special cup that lets her sip her espresso. Yes, we learned a lot of technical stuff about the ISS but dude — coffee in space is awesome.
We worked for almost 14 hours that day. It was busy. It was exhausting. It was fun.
The next morning it was time to graduate from the Adult Space Academy and head back home with another childhood dream fulfilled.