Rocket Woman—My Memories of Space Camp

There are moments in life when things come full circle. When something from your past comes back to the forefront in a way that’s somehow really fulfilling. One of those moments happened to me when I heard that Inforum’s guest speaker for their Annual Meeting was going to be Dr. Mae Jemison.  In addition to her keynote, she will also be speaking to group of 100 students. For me, Dr. Jemison is a superhero because she did something I only dreamed of—becoming an astronaut. During my entire youth I was focused on that one goal, and although it didn’t happen, as an adult seeing someone like her in person is like meeting an idol. Like so many pioneers, she broke ground as the first African-American in space and is currently the principal of the 100 Year Starship, a project devoted to interstellar travel.

In my youth I was fanatical about anything related to space and absorbed all I could. This included repeated viewings of Star Trek episodes and films, Star Wars (of course) and pretty much anything with “star” or “space” in the name. I consistently watched the launches of Space Shuttles, and was watching live when Challenger was lost. I was later proud to enroll at the University of Michigan where so many other astronauts had graduated, including the crew of Apollo 15, the all U-M alumni flight.

The high point of all of this was my weeklong trip to Space Camp at age 16. It’s hard to describe how thrilling it was from start to finish. I was honored to win a Challenger Seven scholarship (in honor of the seven astronauts lost in the Challenger disaster) to attend the camp. From the moment I got on the plane for the trip to Huntsville, Alabama, through graduation, every experience was better that the next. As a camper you had the opportunity to experience complete astronaut training, culminating in two simulated Space Shuttle flights, one as an astronaut and one as ground crew. On the Shuttle flight I was a payload specialist and we were charged with several “in-flight” research experiments. On the ground, I was the flight director responsible for all aspects of the flight from ignition to landing.

In addition to the Shuttle flights, we constructed model rockets, took a turn in a Multi-Axis Trainer, trained in the same pool as astronauts, and designed a Martian colony. The camp was also housed next to a great indoor/outdoor space museum with the gigantic Saturn rockets and a life-size model of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing. At graduation I was awarded the Right Stuff medal for outstanding camper and a ribbon that had been flown on Space Shuttle Discovery. As I wrote in my day-by-day diary for the local newspaper: “I found it very hard to leave Space Camp.”

Even though STEM wasn’t a term used when I was younger, I was encouraged to follow a path that included an emphasis on science and technology. Now, as a marketing researcher I still apply those skills as our company designs and executes our projects. I even had the opportunity to design museum exhibits for NASA on a grant -funded project for the Michigan Science Center. Although that may be the closest I ever get to working for the agency, it was still so rewarding to know that the work I was doing might inspire future astronauts.

Today, I still dream of being an astronaut—but now as a tourist. And now there are potential options. Virgin Galactic (what a great name!) will offer weightless flights aboard SpaceShip Two for the general public. Elon Musk’s SpaceXvehicle Dragon plans to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, and eventually a manned (and womanned) flight to Mars. Two private individuals have also booked a “lunar tourism” flight on Dragon to swing around the Moon. It’s a thrilling time to see a reigniting of enthusiasm about space travel.

So when I see Dr. Jemison’s speech at Inforum’s Annual Meeting I’ll be thinking about those dreams I had and hoping all the young audience members will one day be able to fulfill their own dreams.


Debra Power, President

Power Marketing Research