UPDATE: New dates set for 'Mission Discovery' astronaut camp at - WDRB 41 Louisville News

UPDATE: New dates set for 'Mission Discovery' astronaut camp at Ky. Science Center

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Astronaut Ken Ham interacts with students at a previous Mission Discovery camp. (Source: Higher Orbits / Michelle Ham) Astronaut Ken Ham interacts with students at a previous Mission Discovery camp. (Source: Higher Orbits / Michelle Ham)
Students at a previous Mission Discovery camp. (Source: Higher Orbits / Michelle Ham) Students at a previous Mission Discovery camp. (Source: Higher Orbits / Michelle Ham)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- New dates have been set for Mission Discovery Kentucky -- a weekend camp that mixes kids with astronauts at the Kentucky Science Center.

The camp will now be held March 21-22 and March 28-29, according to Michelle Ham, the camp's organizer. It had originally been scheduled for Feb. 21-22 and Feb. 28 - March 1, but was rescheduled due to the winter weather.

Students at the camp will be split into groups, with each group planning a science experiment to be performed in zero gravity. The winning experiment will eventually be performed on the International Space Station, according to Ham.

The camp will unite up to 250 high school and college age students with astronauts, scientists and Mission Control flight directors. It's all part of an effort to use the resources of NASA and the space program to get the kids interested in STEM education -- science, technology, engineering and math.

"I'm a big believer: if you can't get kids excited about STEM and leadership through space, then, you know, I don't know what to tell you," laughed Michelle Ham, founder and President of Higher Orbits, the non-profit organization that organizes Mission Discovery.

Ham, who spent 10 years working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, both as a flight controller in Mission Control, and as a technical instructor for astronauts heading to the International Space Station, says students are often intimidated by pursuing a career in the higher sciences.

"Let's face it: it's not easy," she said. "STEM fields are very challenging and I think -- especially in today's day and age -- it's really important that we show students what the opportunities and possibilities are on the other side of that education."

To make STEM subjects more accessible -- and more attractive -- to students, Ham says the campers will meet, speak to and ask advice of astronauts and other leaders in math and science fields. They will also divide up into teams and work on various projects, including writing an article, producing a mission patch, and designing and proposing a science experiment to be conducted in space. One team's "winning" experiment will be chosen, and that experiment will eventually head for the International Space Station, where the proposed experiment will actually be carried out by the astronauts on board.

"One team from Louisville Science Center will absolutely have their experiment flown in space," Ham said.

Facing danger, malfunctions and...social media

One man who says he's excited to be coming to Louisville is astronaut Douglas Wheelock, who often goes by the callsign "Wheels." Wheelock says the Mission Discovery camp will mark his first visit to this city, and he's eager to share his experience of flying into space with students who are just as eager to achieve their own goals.

"I learned early on that when I'm working with and talking with the kids – especially when I'm in my blue NASA flight suit – I can see their mind working and their eyes and they're thinking, ‘Okay, that's cool. You've got a cool blue jumpsuit, and you fly in space. That's really cool. But what about me? What about my dreams? What about my goals? Is there a place for me in science and in engineering – maybe going to space? Is there a place for me too?'" Wheelock explained.

"My first goal when I come to Louisville is to let the kids know that all of this is accessible to them as well," he said. "The reality is, I, like all the other astronauts, are just ordinary people from ordinary places. And...we can get into the classrooms, sit down with the kids, have a few touch your arm, touch your patch, and say like, 'You're like a real person! And I can become that too! I can do that as well!'"

Wheelock says his other goal is to get the students to overcome the fears they face, not just of math and science, but in the problems they experience at home and in their relationships. And he knows a lot about fear and danger. In 2007, he flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery as part of STS-120. (He called the ride atop the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters, "the most violent thing I had ever experienced in my life up until that point," adding that, "the vibration inside is literally eye-watering -- it's difficult to even think straight.")

During that flight, he would perform three spacewalks -- one of which was to repair a malfunctioning solar panel on the International Space Station. In 2010, he would return to the space station for a much longer, six-month stay, in which he would perform yet another three space walks.

And he says he's ready to go back for more, eagerly awaiting his next assignment.

Despite all of that danger and excitement, Wheelock laughs when he recalls one of the most daunting challenges he overcame in recent years: learning to use social media.

"They took me kicking and screaming into the social media thing -- into the Twitter and all that!" he laughed.

Wheelock explained that in March 2010, just before he launched on his six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, NASA suggested that he open a Twitter account that he could use to share the experience of spaceflight with people on the ground.

"I sort of reluctantly...I told NASA I wasn't going to do that," he said.

But then he says he got another communique from NASA in which they said, "we strongly encourage you" to get a Twitter account.

Wheelock said he got the message -- and although he was apprehensive about it and didn't necessarily understand it, he overcame his fears.

"I made a Twitter account and started tweeting from space and it just went viral," he said, excitedly. "Now you see our astronauts on board -- you see a lot of them, just tremendous amounts of follows and hits and interest in space now because we've made space and engineering and science -- we've made it available to kids now!"

Today, Wheelock says he regularly uses Twitter as a tool to engage others -- and he credits that and other growth experiences in his life to a willingness to overcome his fears to achieve his goals, which is what he says he wants to pass on to the youth at Mission Discovery.

The best way to overcome fear, Wheelock says, is "to pick up the tools around you and figure out a way around the obstacle, over the obstacle, or pick up a big sledge hammer, metaphorically, and knock the obstacle down -- just bash a hole in it."

Calling all campers

Ham says she ultimately decided on holding a Mission Discovery camp in Louisville after speaking with two men: Twyman Clements and Kris Kimel, both of whom are active in Space Tango and Kentucky Space, two groups that promote space exploration and STEM education in Kentucky. She said both men convinced her that Louisville was a place that needed Mission Discovery.

"My goal with Higher Orbits is to bring Mission Discovery to as many locations as possible, to reach as many students as possible," Ham said. "Kentucky was a demographic region that I had not had the opportunity to bring Mission Discovery to."

Ham says Mission Discovery can accept up to 250 campers. The camp runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Louisville Science Center on March 21-22 and March 28-29. The cost for each student is $500, and she says scholarships are available.

She says she is also hoping local companies or individuals interested in promoting STEM education will step forward with donations to help, whether those donations take the form of sponsorships to pay a student's $500 tuition, or help in other ways, such as donating food to feed the students lunch for a day.

Ham says she recalls one instance at a previous Mission Discovery camp that showed her that the rewards to the community -- and to the students -- are well worth it. She said it happened in the life of several students from a lower socioeconomic background who were only able to attend the camp on scholarships. Ham said that over five days, she was able to watch some of those students grow in confidence until they were able to present their experiment proposals publicly, without apprehension.

A short time later, they learned that their experiment won, and would be flying aboard the International Space Station.

"One of the kids...looks at us and says, 'I can't believe this is happening to me. Things like this don't happen to people like me. Maybe I can go to college,'" she recalled. "And that just...I get chills every time I think about that. It was just the most heartwarming moment knowing what a difference we have been able to make in five days of his life."

Anyone interested in signing up for Mission Discovery, applying for a scholarship or sponsoring a child can click HERE.

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