Children of Deployed Parents Aim for Stars at Space Camp

By Ray Johnson
Special to American Forces Press Service

TRANSINNE, Belgium , Aug. 18, 2008 - With Joshua Mayo in the pilot seat and flight director Daniel Arvleo-Perez overseeing a mission control center hundreds of miles away, the space shuttle landed flawlessly. Not bad for a couple of teenagers.

Obviously, Arvleo-Perez, 15, wasn't at Houston's Johnson Space Center, and Mayo, 17, didn't touch down at Cape Canaveral, Fla. In fact, they were manning a shuttle mock up and miniature mission control center found here at the Euro Space Center, which educates visitors on space, its exploration and its consequences on everyday life.

And for 24 children of soldiers stationed in Europe, it provided a break from the realities of having a parent deployed to global hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The space camp, held Aug. 3-8, was one of three destination camps hosted this summer by Installation Management Command Europe Region's Child and Youth Services as part of its Camp A.R.M.Y Challenge program. The acronym stands for adventure, resilience, memories and youth -- all of which certainly proved true for participating high-school students who wanted to learn more about the cosmos.

"Based on the kids' evaluations, we hit the mark in providing them with activities they wanted," said Joe Marton, the program's director. "They wanted a fun experience to enjoy in the here and now while also developing or enhancing skills for use during life's travels."

Besides planning, launching and landing a simulated shuttle mission, the campers also worked with past and present astronaut-training tools, including:

-- The Multi-Axis Trainer, wimulates what an astronaut felt during a tumbling spin when reentering the Earth's atmosphere in Apollo program space vehicles;

? The 1/6th Gravity Chair, which replicates movement than an astronaut experiences on a surface with one-sixth the gravity of earth -- like the moon. It was used by Apollo crews to prepare for their mission to the moon.

-- The Rotating chair, which reproduces disorientation and vertigo; and

-- The Microgravity wall, which creates what it's like to move in the frictionless environment of space when working on satellites or the shuttle itself.

In between these amusement-park-like rides, the teenagers prepared for their shuttle launch by splitting into two groups: mission control, where participants took on various jobs performed by NASA members on the ground, and mission in space, which had the campers performing the roles of space shuttle astronauts.

Two days before their mission, the 24 Camp A.R.M.Y Challenge campers truly got a sense of what it's like to reach the stars as they connected for an hour with astronaut Air Force Col. Mike Finke, via Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, a volunteer program that builds and operates equipment that allows communication between the orbiting outpost and Earth.

Originally, the teenagers were to be allotted a 15-minute session with two Japanese astronauts training at Johnson Space Center. However, a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico forced the pair's evacuation. Staying behind and volunteering to replace them during the question-and-answer program, Finke, who is preparing for a six-month mission on the space station, took every query. The questions ranged from the complex to the simple, such as: "What physical, physiological and behavioral changes can occur in astronauts while in space?" to "What grades did you make in high school?"

Pegged to lead the ISS Expedition-18 crew in October and a father of three, Finke noted he could relate to the campers' parents being separated from their children, saying: "It's tougher for me every time I leave; ... your moms and dads feel the same."

Marton said the teenagers -- many of whom have had a mother or father deployed numerous times -- took note of Finke's comments of his time away in space and reintegrating with his family. "There was a synergy there, a sense of, 'I understand what you're going through.' Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise that we weren't able to connect with the two original astronauts. Colonel Finke certainly understood what these military children are experiencing."

Besides the space camp, Installation Management Command Europe Region also held a Camp A.R.M.Y. Challenge sports and fitness camp for middle- and high-school-age children and an island adventure for middle schoolers, along with specialty camps at garrisons heavily impacted by deployments. Overall, almost 1,250 children of deployed U.S. servicemembers participated in the camps.

Now in its second year of existence, the program continues be part of what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates calls "a sacred responsibility" to care for U.S. military children affected by deployment.

Speaking last month at a conference for members of the Military Child Education Coalition, Gates said: "The empty seat at the dinner table night and after night is a constant reminder of a child's worry for his or her parent's safety."

"Our military children are awesome," he declared, "just as their parents are, but they have extra hurdles to clear, burdens to bear. ... The sons and daughters of our all-volunteer force also serve this nation; we have a sacred responsibility to care for them."

(Ray Johnson serves in the Installation Management Command Europe Public Affairs Office.)

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