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.

6 Things You Might Not Know About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is known as the world's first LGBTQ astronaut.

No Venom, No Problem: This Spider Uses a Slingshot to Catch Prey

Courtesy of Sarah Han
Courtesy of Sarah Han

There are thousands of ways nature can kill, and spider species often come up with the most creative methods of execution. Hyptiotes cavatus, otherwise known as the triangle weaver spider, is one such example. Lacking venom, the spider manages to weaponize its silk, using it to hurl itself forward like a terrifying slingshot to trap its prey.

This unusual method was studied up close for a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio. They say it's the only known instance of an animal using an external device—its web—for power amplification.

Hyptiotes cavatus's technique is simple. After constructing a web, the spider takes one of the main strands and breaks it in half, pulling it taut by moving backwards. Then, it anchors itself to a spot with more webbing in the rear. When the spider releases that webbing, it surges forward, propelled by the sudden release of stored energy. In the slingshot analogy, the webbing is the strap and the spider is the projectile.

This jerking motion causes the web to oscillate, tangling the spider's prey further in silk. The spider can repeat this until the web has completely immobilized its prey, a low-risk entrapment that doesn’t require the spider to get too close and risk injury from larger victims.

The triangle weaver spider doesn’t have venom, and it needs to be proactive in attacking and stifling prey. Once a potential meal lands in its web, it’s able to clear distances much more quickly using this slingshot technique than if it crawled over. In the lab, scientists clocked the spider’s acceleration at 2535 feet per second squared.

Spiders are notoriously nimble and devious. Cebrennus rechenbergi, or the flic-flac spider, can do cartwheels to spin out of danger; Myrmarachne resemble ants and even wiggle their front legs like ant antennae. It helps them avoid predators, but if they see a meal, they’ll drop the act and pounce. With H. cavatus, it now appears they’re learning to use tools, too.

[h/t Live Science]

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