Participants are harnessed up for the space shuttle simulation at Space Camp

You Can Train To Be an Astronaut at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama

Michael Huxley

Michael Huxley

June 28, 2024

4 min read

My helmet was steaming up with each hot breath. I was completely weightless, making life-or-death decisions in the cold vacuum of space. At least, that’s what all of it was meant to feel like.  

No, I wasn’t in space, and the weightlessness was simulated through a complex pulley system in a vast warehouse made to look like we were orbiting Earth. In reality, I was training to become an astronaut at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. 

As a hub for space tourism and the birthplace of the Apollo space program—which ultimately sent American astronauts to the moon—the Center launched Space Camp in 1982 to inspire explorers with a rigorous program based on real-life NASA astronaut training. It’s about as close as you can get to being an astronaut without actually leaving the planet. 

Participants in blue suits at Space Camp

I’ve dreamed about traveling to space since I was young, a dream fueled by watching endless science-fiction movies and Star Trek reruns. For most of my life, that spirit of extraterrestrial adventure was confined to more earthly experiences, such as gazing at the Milky Way above the Jasper National Park dark sky sanctuary in Canada. But the Adult Space Academy—Space Camp designed for participants 18 years and older—allowed me to fulfill that life-long dream. 

The Center offers extensive programming, Space Camps varying in duration and intensity, and available whether you’re participating as an adult, child, or with your entire family. The Adult Space Academy is a three-day, two-night immersive experience, where you’re thrown into life as an astronaut-in-training. Alongside a small group of other explorers, you’ll sleep in the same dorm room, eat together, and bond quickly as you become the latest team trained to explore the farthest reaches of space.

From the moment I donned the obligatory Space Camp uniform, a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with NASA patches, my inner child couldn’t withhold the urge to quote Star Trek’s Captain Kirk at every available opportunity. 

Write Mike Huxley uses the multi-axis trainer at Space Camp

We started with the multi-axis trainer, the piece of equipment used to condition astronauts on how to handle a spacecraft tumble during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. One by one, we were strapped into the chair assembly; my excitement grew as the inner and outer rings began to spin in opposite directions around me. 

I was thrown in every direction as if we were being buffered by endless g-forces (gravitational forces) as our spacecraft “plummeted to Earth.” Of course, the simulation was a fraction of what it would feel like in a genuine shuttle emergency, but the disorientation and excitement were real. 

On the surface of the moon, astronauts will have learned to work with gravity one-sixth of what it is on Earth. After completing the multi-axis trainer, we were expected to do the same with the help of the 1/6th gravity chair, which was actually more like a harness hooked up to a complex hydraulic system than an actual chair. 

I was strapped in tight before being given free reign to bounce around the rocky moon simulator surface. To my slight disappointment, they told me to resist the temptation to jump hard, or the chair would carry me off into the warehouse rafters.

A person wears astronaut gear at Space Camp

The pinnacle of Adult Space Academy, though, was the space shuttle simulator (more so than wearing a reproduction of the classic white NASA spacesuit worn by astronauts during the Apollo missions for their spacewalks outside the spacecraft, if you can believe it).

During the space shuttle simulator, each member of our small team was assigned a specific rank and role before being let loose on an Apollo-era simulator designed to mimic a low-orbit NASA spacecraft as it hits an emergency upon re-entry. 

Strapped into our seats of the cramped cabin, we all concentrated on our given tasks. As the Mission Specialist, I was tasked with transferring a fuel line from one adaptor to another. It was difficult to maneuver myself, as I was suspended in the air and struggling to hold onto the side of the shuttle. The thick gloves of my suit made it even more difficult to transfer the fuel line, and I could feel my adrenaline pumping, adding to the claustrophobia I already felt racing against the clock to repair the malfunctioning panel. 

It was a strange sensation, otherworldly in fact. Saying it felt like life or death may seem a little hyperbolic, but when they laid out the scenario for us, the stakes had never felt higher. Our training and focus allowed each person to perform perfectly, culminating in us working together as one single unit and bringing the shuttle safely back down to Earth. In the end, we understood firsthand the true lesson that all astronauts must learn: teamwork.  

And as a bonus, mission control did allow me to temporarily rename the shuttle Enterprise

Getting there

  • Huntsville International Airport (HSV) serves more than a dozen major US hubs, including Atlanta, Houston, and Orlando, throughout the year. The Center is only a five-minute drive from downtown Huntsville. While public transport is limited, car rental services are available.
  • Average Going price for cheap flights to Huntsville: $209 roundtrip

How to do it

  • Best time to go: The Adult Space Academy runs regularly throughout the year. Spots are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly; it’s not uncommon for sessions to be booked out months (if not a full year) ahead, so plan accordingly. Huntsville itself is a year-round destination, with the shoulder seasons of spring and fall often being the best time to escape the extremes of Alabama weather.
  • Cost: At the time of writing, the cost of the Adult Space Academy is $699; check the website for the most current prices. This includes two nights of accommodation on-site and all meals; it does not include transport or ancillary costs.
  • Tips and considerations: Most attendees will sleep in a dorm room alongside their teammates, so pack accordingly and include a padlock for your locker. You can also choose to stay in one of the hotels near the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (at your own cost). The program runs Friday–Sunday, and there is time after graduation to explore the attached museum, as well as nearby attractions, such as the Saturn I rocket at Rocket Park (currently under construction but expected to be opened sometime in summer 2024).

Other out-of-this-world experiences

Michael Huxley

Michael Huxley

Freelance Writer

Michael Huxley has been exploring the world on his own terms for over 25 years and is a passionate advocate for independent travel and responsible wildlife tourism. He is a published author, travel writer, and founder of the travel website Bemused Backpacker and has been featured by the BBC, the New York Times, USA Today Travel, and many more. 


Published June 28, 2024

Last updated June 28, 2024

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