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Campout at Kennedy Space Center educational, exhilarating

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It feels a little odd to enter the Kennedy Space Center just as all the other visitors are leaving. That’s especially true when you’re hauling in mountains of sleeping bags, pajamas and toothbrushes.

One recent Saturday afternoon, my sons’ Cub Scout pack (full disclosure: I am the Cubmaster) got to spend the night at the space center. It’s one of the locations around the state that throws its doors open to Scout groups, school groups and other youth organizations for an overnight, up-close-and-personal experience normal tourists don’t get.

Our trip to Cape Canaveral was the pack’s big end-of-the-year camping trip. In past years, we’ve spent the night at Lowry Park Zoo, where we slept with the manatees; SeaWorld, where we slept with the beluga whales; and Steinbrenner Field, where we camped in the outfield after a Tampa Yankees baseball game.

Kennedy Space Center’s overnight program promises a night under the rockets.

That used to mean bedding down beneath the enormous Saturn V rocket that launched eight missions to the moon between 1968 and 1972. But this year, we slept beneath a new icon of the U.S. space program: the retired Atlantis space shuttle.

Atlantis is the centerpiece of a display that opened last summer at the space center’s visitor center in Titusville.

The shuttle is mounted at an angle in the heart of the building, cargo bay doors open, robotic arm unfolded as if it were plucked from the sky mid-mission. From the second floor, it feels so close you want to reach up and touch it.

The museum includes a life-size model of the Hubble Space Telescope as well as interactive exhibits that let you get the feel for working in a bulky space suit. There’s also a kid-sized mock-up of the International Space Station for crawling through.

And if you want to understand how the shuttles returned to Earth, try the curvy obstacle course (mimicking the way the shuttle bleeds off momentum) followed by the 22-degree slide (the shuttle’s angle of descent to the cape’s 3-mile landing strip) that delivers you to the museum’s ground floor.

Our overnight started at about 4:30 p.m. with a group photo in front of the sprawling fountain at the visitor center’s entry plaza. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get 28 Cub Scouts and their parents to all gather in a tight group suitable for a photo. Let’s just say that in keeping with the weekend’s space theme, the photographer had to use such a wide-angle lens, our photo looks as if it was shot with a satellite.

We dragged all our stuff through the center’s gates and then to a waiting bus to be stored for the evening. Cub Scout camping isn’t just backpacks and bedrolls. It’s also duffle bags and inflatable mattresses and stuffed animals and several changes of clothes. We pretty much filled the luggage compartment.

Our guides for the evening tried to keep us on a tight schedule, but between the stragglers and the bathroom breaks, it didn’t take long for things to slip.

Their first scheduling challenge came as they tried to corral dozens of Cub Scouts — we were sharing our trip with a pack from Thonotosassa — into a craft project building paper rockets.

They were about a million times simpler than the Saturn V: just a sheet of paper shaped around a piece of tubing and held together with Scotch tape. Scotch tape, let it be known, can get out of hand quickly when employed by Cub Scouts. We had a few rockets that were more tape than paper.

Time slipped away as we tested the question: How many adults does it take to help a Cub Scout build a paper rocket? We didn’t come up with the definitive answer, but we worked pretty hard on it.

Our rockets went into a bag, to return later for a nighttime launch.

Then it was Astronaut Time.

For the next hour or so, we got an audience with Charlie Walker, who was payload specialist on the first Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 1984. He wore a blue NASA jumpsuit and gave us a goodie bag that included an autographed picture. I couldn’t help but notice that Walker is a lot grayer in real life than in his 30-year-old picture, but who isn’t?

He flew three shuttle missions. He experimented with developing pharmaceuticals in zero gravity. He helped with the first satellite rescue in space. He advanced the breadth of human knowledge. So, of course, he spent most of his time answering questions about using the bathroom in space.

“I’ve done it before,” Walker said. “It ain’t easy.”

No slouch, Walker was ready with pictures of the vacuum-driven space toilet — in zero gravity, you strap yourself down — and what happens when you flush.

Our Kennedy Space Center dinner came with pizza, spaghetti, salad and (since it was Kennedy Space Center) Tang. The parents were more excited than their kids about that last part. But before we could eat, we had to wait.

Pack 188 hit the cafeteria ahead of us, leaving us lined up at the door with nothing to do. That’s a dangerous place to be when you’re a Cub Scout leader. We started with a camp song to keep everyone engaged. But a bunch of hungry Cub Scouts makes a poor audience. So when the song flopped, we went for Plan B. That’s “B” as in bathroom.

For the record, the visitor center’s toilets do not come with straps. They’d be a lot cooler if they did.

After dinner, it was time for the launch simulator.

Frankly, it seemed unwise to me to stuff a bunch of Cub Scouts with pizza and pasta then shake them violently. So I was a little nervous as we entered the simulator. I got more nervous when the entire operation tilted 90 degrees and we all were pointed at the ceiling.

Astronaut Charlie Bolden, our video-taped guide into space, was chipper and encouraging and never once mentioned air-sick bags. I crossed my fingers.

At the end of the countdown, the simulator shook and rumbled and we were pushed back into our seats as we started our five-minute trip from Earth to orbit and back.

Once we reached space, the cargo bay doors opened to reveal a view of Earth. It was breathtaking even if it was a video.

We returned home a few moments later, simulated fire cascading across the viewports. I couldn’t help thinking about the crew of Columbia: This was probably the last thing they saw before their damaged shuttle disintegrated on re-entry over the Texas plains in 2003.

We made it back with everyone and their dinners firmly in place.

At some point during the evening, our guides mentioned that we were running 40 minutes behind. That didn’t seem like a problem until we passed 10 p.m. and the day started making itself felt.

But the evening’s events weren’t over. We still had rockets to launch.

Those paper rockets we made at the beginning of our visit reappeared around 10:30, complete with a half-dozen air-powered launch pads. The instructions were simple: Slide the rocket onto the tube. Use the bicycle pump to build up 15 pounds of pressure. Hit the switch.

The moment of anticipation right before we pushed our buttons was a scale-model version of what it must feel like in Mission Control before a real rocket takes off. Even when you’re a rocket scientist, there’s no telling what will happen.

Some of our rockets were wild successes, sailing 50 feet or more. Others, well, it was good they were powered with air and not rocket fuel.

To its credit, NASA doesn’t shy away from its failures.

Bolden’s introduction to the simulated shuttle ride included a lesson in the physics of a launch, including the point at which the shuttle, having made it through a crucial atmospheric barrier, accelerates. That was the point that the shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff in 1986.

The images of the disaster were new for our Cub Scouts, but for many of the parents, that day in January is akin to the Kennedy assassination. The phrase “Roger, go at throttle up” gives me chills to this day.

Around 11 p.m., it was time to wind things down.

Getting Cub Scouts to sleep is a challenge without the addition of a model space toilet to sit on and enormous shuttle wheels to spin.

We parents spread our little family groups across the museum floor while the boys were otherwise occupied. The hum of air-mattress pumps drifted across the cavernous room. The heroes of the evening were the folks who brought power strips so everyone could recharge their fading cellphones.

Then it was pajamas, toothbrushes and sleeping bags.

The next day we would travel by bus to Launch Pad 39A, touch a moon rock and eat lunch under that enormous Saturn V.

But that night, we all looked up from our pillows at the black-bellied flying machine — so powerful and yet so fragile — suspended above us. And, after the lights blinked out, some of us dreamed of space.

The rest were kept awake by all the snoring.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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