A young man searches for switches
during a simulated launch on the
shuttle Atlantis, at a space-camp
session for the visually impaired.
This year's zero-gravity flight by world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking proved that disabilities need not be an impediment to spacey experiences - and another proof comes this weekend, when about 115 kids with vision impairments ranging all the way up to total blindness begin a week of space-camp training at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama.
The experience will be tailored to the kids' capabilities, thanks to voice recognition devices and other high-tech tools. Someday, we may see such technologies on real spaceships as well, said Dan Oates, coordinator of Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, or SCIVIS.
"With the space tourist industry coming along as it is, eventually there'll be an opportunity for the common person to go," he told me. "When that happens, screen readers and electronic magnification will all be a little bit more common."
Some of the space-camp modifications really aren't all that high-tech, just clever: For example, plastic overlays with Braille writing have been made up for the switch panels on the space shuttle simulators, Oates said. If a shuttle-sim trainee needs the Braille, the overlay can be attached to the panel with Velcro strips. If not, the panel can be easily popped off.
The information being fed to the space-campers has likewise been converted into more accessible forms. "All the materials here are produced in large print or Braille," Oates said. Computer monitors have been tricked up so that vision-impaired campers can zoom in on the text on the screen, or have the text converted to synthetic speech.
During a series of mission simulations - including launch and landing, a computer emergency and a satellite-raising operation - some of the kids will be monitoring the action with dual-track headsets. "One ear is good for synthetic speech, the other ear is the mission-control chat you hear all the time," Oates explained. "The kids have to learn to listen to two separate things, one in each ear."
The campers' medical conditions are being taken into account, of course. One of the experiences for advanced campers is a scuba dive that simulates a zero-gravity spacewalk. Some of the vision-impaired kids won't be able to take that in, due to glaucoma or other conditions that could be made worse by the dive. Others will have to pass up the high-G simulations. But over the 17 years that SCIVIS has been in operation, the organizers have tried to make their camp as much like regular space camp as possible.
"I'm not in the business of saying no," Oates said.
Seemingly scary experiences can be big learning experiences, particularly for those with disabilities. For example, the space-campers will get their turns on a multiaxis trainer - the tilt-a-whirl device that simulates the disorientation that real astronauts feel in microgravity.
"A totally blind child has a lot of difficulty imagining that, so that's quite a rush," Oates said. "There's a lot of fear, but there's also the joy of overcoming the fright and actually doing the experience - and getting the positive feedback from your peers. ... This is good peer pressure here, it's one of the good things that happen here."
The fact that the kids are among others who face the same challenges is an important part of the experience, Oates added. "All of the sudden, they're not the token anymore," he said.
Some of the SCIVIS space-campers go on to careers in aerospace, Oates said. But the most important outcome of the experience is that kids come away feeling that disabilities need not stand in the way of future adventures - the same lesson that can be drawn from Dr. Hawking's flight. All it takes is a little help from technology, and from each other.
"If anyone's limiting the people with disabilities, it's us who do not have them," Oates said. "They feel like they can do whatever it takes."