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Loss of Space Camp was loss of children's dreams

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003


Who of us north of 40 with even a mild wonder of the stars was not mesmerized on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong first stepped on to the surface of the moon?

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Armstrong's remark and achievement served NASA and the American space dream well for decades.

Lately, that giant leap feels more like a shuffle. It's not just the tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia. NASA's vision for space exploration turned muddy some years ago.

One of the unintended victims may be the enthusiasm for space of the next generation.

Last year, Space Camp -- a facility near Cape Canaveral where thousands of kids from Florida and elsewhere could stay and experience the challenges of the NASA astronauts -- went out of business.

Florida's Space Camp routinely was attended by school children and their science teachers from around the state. Kids spent the nights in spacelike dorms and spent the days in hands-on science demonstrations, working as teams to run mock space shuttle missions, and testing their own astronaut skills in simulated weightlessness and G-forces.

My son and his sixth-grade class attended Space Camp last spring, little knowing they would be among the last to enjoy such an opportunity. The class returned with tales of scientific wonder -- and some dorm silliness -- along with Space Camp memorabilia, a group photo of the class posing in front of a mock shuttle Discovery, and a better scientific appreciation of what it takes to travel into space.

Rodger Wells, my son's science teacher and a space enthusiast, says his school started taking students to Space Camp a dozen years ago. He says Space Camp had even been improving lately.

No more. A few more modest educational programs near Cape Canaveral are offered by groups affiliated with NASA, but they do not fit national science standards, Wells says. The result? In place of any NASA-type experience, the next sixth-grade class will head to a different experience based on the theme of "team building" in Orlando.

That's sad. NASA needs to excite a new generation. Not just to produce future scientists and astronauts, but to regain the flagging popular support that's left NASA with a trimmed budget, a timid space agenda and a perceived loss of innovation.

Florida's Space Camp was not the only one to close last year. Space Camp in Mountain View, Calif., also shut its doors. In both cases, the problem was financial. Both camps were run by U.S. Space Camp Foundation, a nonprofit that operated out of Huntsville, Ala.

What went wrong? Space Camp Foundation's decision to borrow millions of dollars set the stage for the camps' demise. In Florida, debt problems began shortly after the mid 1990s when Space Camp and the affiliated U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame issued more than $10-million in bonds to build a new dormitory and expand the attractions' buildings.

While Space Camp Foundation struggled to make payments on the debt, which was held by SouthTrust Bank, foundation directors chose to borrow millions more. When payment came due, the foundation stalled for more time, just as a national recession hit and the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks decimated travel in the state. Early last year, SouthTrust went to court to foreclose on the properties.

Last fall, Delaware Park North Services, a private company that runs services at the Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks, as well as the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for NASA, made a last-minute deal with SouthTrust to save the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Delaware Park also took possession of some of Space Camp's choice assets, including its simulators. The company is starting to promote a more modest educational program called Camp KSC at the Hall of Fame. But Space Camp is gone.

"The U.S. Space Camp Foundation no longer exists. It is defunct," says Al Whitaker, the spokesman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. The foundation ran the camps outside of Alabama. The separately-run U.S. Space & Rocket Center continues to operate the sole surviving Space Camp in Huntsville.

Last fall, a Maryland suburb of Washington began pitching the idea that it could build a $27-million space camp that could draw as many as 90,000 visitors a year. The state of Maryland funded most of the $60,000 study.

One of the study's conclusions: Neither Florida's Space Camp nor California's Space Camp were well marketed. And they were not easily accessible to travelers. NASA, the study noted, operates a 23-acre visitors center in Greenbelt, Md.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that included $150,000 for a space camp in Maryland's Prince George's County.

I wish that effort well. Somebody better try to spark an imagination for space in the young. But Maryland's gain will be Florida's loss.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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