Inside the Space Camp Designed for Blind and Visually Impaired Kids

U.S. Space Camp
U.S. Space Camp

Seventeen-year-old William Hedlund’s favorite part of NASA's Space Camp is the simulators, from the one-sixth gravity chair to the mock flights and missions. He loves the in-depth experience—a taste of what it’s like for actual astronauts in training or in space. He's your typical teenager dreaming of space travel, except for one thing: He's blind.

Hedlund, who is from Seattle, is one of the 750,000 people who have gotten a taste of astronaut training since Space Camp, held at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was launched in 1982. It's a famous program; there was even a movie about it. But few know about the tailored camp that Hedlund has attended for the past three years: Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (SCIVIS), a program for kids from 4th to 12th grade.

“I don’t have the chance to connect with many visually impaired people of my age, so it’s great to be there and make that connection," Hedlund tells Mental Floss. "We exchange techniques about how to get around our visual impairments and enjoy the camaraderie with each other.”

During the weeklong program, participants stay in Space Camp’s dorm facilities, which are set up to look like "futuristic space stations," with tubular compartments and tunnels attached to a main silo, silver concave doors leading to dorm rooms with colorful bunk beds, and a cafeteria. They spend their time on simulators, completing astronaut-training missions, and conquering physical challenges like climbing a rock wall and scuba diving. There's a graduation ceremony, too.

In the 27 years of SCIVIS, more than 3800 students from almost every state and more than 20 countries have attended. About 50 kids a year get scholarships that cover up to half of the program cost ($795, or $895 for an advanced academy high schoolers can attend). An estimated $500,000 has been awarded throughout the life of the program; the last four years have hit about $70,000 in scholarship funding through supporters including Delta Gamma, Northrop Grumman, the Teubert Charitable Trust, and Lighthouse for the Blind-St. Louis. (Prior to that, it was only between $4000 and $10,000 a year.)


Girls attending Space Camp walk together under the Pathfinder space shuttle exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Students come from all over the world, each with a chaperone—a professional educator from their school or district specializing in the education of the blind and visually impaired—who acts as a technical assistant for the staff.

One of those specialized educators is Dana La Curan, an orientation and mobility specialist with the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. La Curan brought two visually impaired students—a senior and a 7th grader—to SCIVIS in September 2016. The senior, who is blind, told La Curan that her favorite experience was scuba diving; she had never felt weightlessness before.

The program tries to stick to the same camp experience nondisabled students have, including everything from the camp instructors to the manuals in use. The staff doesn’t get any special training, nor does Space Camp bring in a special team for the week. The instructors do, however, attend a pre-camp workshop or two on “blind etiquette,” La Curan tells Mental Floss. The pre-camp workshops are a way to avoid moments of panic—“Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh my god, I just asked a blind student if they could see something!’ and we have to tell them, ‘It’s OK to use that word,’” La Curan says—and to share some tips on working with visually impaired students in general. The chaperones with each student generally intervene only if needed.

But the kids do get some equipment and materials that are tailored for their abilities. According to program coordinator Dan Oates, all the materials for the week are available in braille, large print, or electronic magnification, and the overall schedule is tweaked to allow more time for training. Before camp activities start, the students are screened to ensure the simulators won’t aggravate their eye condition. Once camp is under way, the Mission Control room has screen enlargement software and synthesized speech available, as well as braille keypads and special headphones that process two audio signals.


To help students with blindness or low vision, SCIVIS staff provides large-type manuals, magnifying glasses, and braille to help students with their Space Camp experience. In this photo, a boy follows his part in the mission control script in a Space Camp simulated mission to the International Space Station.


A key pad in Space Camp’s mission control is equipped with braille to allow blind students to participate in their Space Camp missions.

During the camp, blind or visually impaired NASA employees come to speak with the students. Hedlund says that meeting NASA professionals with his disability was one of the more powerful parts of the experience. “It opens doors to the possible career paths we can take besides just a typical job,” he says. “It shows it’s possible for visually impaired students to achieve their dreams. Working at NASA becomes a really achievable goal.”

Every challenge the students face focuses on empowering them, introducing important skills in addition to space-themed activities. The rock wall, for example, encourages use of spacial concepts not often used by kids with visual disabilities.

“Once they leave the ground, to them, they could be 5 inches up or 50 feet up,” La Curan says. “They have no concept of [the height], yet they tackle these things like there’s nothing to it. It’s really hard for them to get spacial concepts, but in the climbing wall they have to learn. You can’t tell them to move their hand an inch to reach a handhold, because they don’t know what an inch is. They can’t see rulers. They’re learning skills that a visual student would not be learning.”

A main theme is allowing the kids to complete the activities on their own. Students are paired up so they can play off one another’s strengths; for example, a blind student will be paired with one who can read large print. They work together (with aid from the staff and chaperones only if needed).

“So many times they are told that they have to rely on someone else to help them,” La Curan says. “Here, they help each other. We don’t guide them. They’re capable. A lot of them find that a very interesting and new experience, because they’re used to people doing everything for them, and now they get to do everything for themselves.”

That sense of independence is broadened by the opportunity to meet others battling the same issues. Many human social cues are visual—like making a face when you don’t like something—so blind and visually impaired kids tend to be shy, or have a slightly lower level of social skills because they can’t see those cues, La Curan says. But the kids coming to SCIVIS from all over the world are able to communicate without worrying about visual cues. Their particular challenges become normalized, and in some cases, they’re able to help each other overcome social awkwardness.

“Blind and visually impaired students, for the most part, rarely get the chance to socialize with their peers,” Oates says. “They may attend school daily, but are often on the fringe, and not part of a social group or team. There is great power in like-minded individuals gathering for a common cause.”

All images courtesy of U.S. Space Camp

Editor's note: This post has been updated with details about scholarship funding and a correction of the overall numbers of SCIVIS participants.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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