NORMAL — As the nation prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, a potential future generation of space explorers is at the Normal Community West High School pool using training methods similar to those used by astronauts.
The 10 students, ages 11 to 14, are participating in the International Space Station Underwater camp offered by the Challenger Learning Center at Heartland Community College.
Students using snorkels and a device called sea breathe — similar to scuba gear — work together to assemble a model of the International Space Station underwater.
It is similar to NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, a giant pool where astronauts practice for spacewalks, explained Stacey Shrewsbury, associate director of the Challenger Learning Center. The water helps simulate working in zero gravity.
“It's an opportunity to see a glimpse of what astronauts are able to do,” said Shrewsbury.
The class has been offered four times in the last eight years, she said. Some students who participated in 2017 have returned.
One of them is Michael Harding, 13, of Bloomington, who said taking the class again “is enriching what I learned two years ago.”
“I am interested in becoming an astronaut but because of my asthma, that's something I can't do,” he said. “Getting to do something like the astronauts do is incredible to me.”
Although he might not fly in space, Michael plans to become “an astronomer or something along those lines.”
Another participant, 13-year-old Joseph Warfel of Bloomington, said, “I'm definitely curious” about being an astronaut but “that seems like somewhat of a long shot.”
Even if the students never go into space, they are learning valuable skills, said Shrewsbury.
Just like a space mission, a big part of the underwater camp is teamwork, she noted.
Each is teamed with a “buddy” during the camp. They need to work together to assemble the various parts of the space station, being careful to align them properly.
The camp gives student “an opportunity to be a part of a team … to try something new and say, 'Wow, I did that,'” said Shrewsbury.
The four-day camp ends Thursday when the students will put all the pieces together in the pool while their families watch.
For Joanna Gonzalez, 11, of Normal, the camp combines many of her interests.
“I love anything to do with water,” said the 11-year-old. “I like to build, too, and I love learning.”
Her favorite astronaut is Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was among the seven crew members killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The Challenger Learning Centers were created to continue the educational mission of the crew.
Joanna said, “I'm happy they are honoring the people who passed.”