Space Camp: Changing With America’s Space Mission

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Dr. Deborah Barnhart is our guest on this week's edition of Leadership Perspectives.  She is the CEO of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the number one tourist attraction in Alabama, the number one science center in the country by attendance and NASA's top visitor center.

We started off by talking about money. The center has been through some rough years financially, but where is it now?

"We have a very good trajectory," said Dr. Barnhart. "We're doing much better financially than we have been in previous decade or so, we're reaching out across the world with our traveling exhibitions, we're seeing renewed interest in space, especially from international students, and we're trying to increase the span of interest in the exhibition in the museum itself to our local community."

The U.S. Space Rocket Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit.  Funding is always tough, Barnhart acknowledged, but the center is meeting its goals.

"For us, moving forward and being operationally self-sustaining was our objective. So for the past two years, we broke even last year, and this year, we'll be about half a million dollars in the black from our own operations - it's a very straightforward and transparent entity financially."

Half of the center's funding comes through education programs, she said, including Space Camp, Aviation Challenge, adult education programs and other activities.  The other half is through museum operations - ticket sales, gift shop purchases, etc.

We asked Dr. Barnhart about the students who come to Space Camp. Many come from other countries, including China. What's their mentality about working together, as global partners?

"I think we as a nation have realized it's unrealistic for us to be, as an individual nation, the explorer and conqueror of all of deep space. I think the International Space Station has taught us that having partnerships with other nations is a healthy thing, and a good thing," said Dr. Barnhart.

"What we're seeing today is renewed interest, not only from American students, but principally, students from other countries interested in joining together and doing deep space exploration with us," Dr. Barnhart added.  "Sixteen percent of Space Camp students are international students - 500 from China, more than 400 from India, and 62 other countries, and all 50 U.S. states.  I think the next generation is understanding that we have to leave the planet together, and also save the planet together."

Do children from China go back thinking about cooperation with other nations, WHNT News 19 asked?

"I think they are. Of course, with their recent landing on the moon, which was a great success for the Chinese people, I think they're thinking about living and working in space," said Dr. Barnhart. "We've [the U.S. has] been living and working in space for a very long period of time."

How has Space Camp progressed in recent years, we asked?

"We have revamped and upgraded the programs to stay true to what the current space travel is. So today, for instance, when you're in our International Space Station during your mission, you would leave the space station on a Soyuz, because that is the escape craft," said Dr. Barnhart.

"We're upgrading some of the motion-based simulators we have," Dr. Barnhart added. "We're making the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, we've got a brand new moon mission which has the Orion 6-man capsule on it."

Do changes such as these make it easier to attract students?

"They're very aware of what the latest things in space activity are, and I think it's only fair for us to prepare them, with the things that are going to be in their runway, in their lifetime," said Dr. Barnhart.

Barnhart said the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is also working with the FAA to qualify civilians for private commercial space flight.

We asked Dr. Barnhart how America can keep the space mission alive for future generations.

"People of our generation remember very clearly where they were that night, when we landed on the moon, or when various activities happened. We have to pass down that inspiration and excitement. We have to ignite that fuse in these younger people so they take the incentive and inspiration that they get from seeing what's come before them, and take it further into their lifetime."

She also said the USSRC plays a role in workforce development, specifically, to spark the interest of students to pursue careers in cyberspace and energy conservation.

Dr. Barnhart recently took a trip to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.  It's a country along the Caspian Sea, approaching central Asia.  She was there for the opening of "Cradle to Cosmos: Mankind's Adventure In Space."  It's a traveling exhibition that includes more than 100 pieces, including space suits, original particles from space, satellites and the work of Dr. Wernher Von Braun, which came from archives at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.  After touring in Azerbaijan, the exhibit will move to other Europen cities such as Brussels and Paris.

Dr. Barnhart also recently returned from another trip to Korea, where she talked about Space Camp.

"When they come to us understanding that it's good for their young people in their nation, and that it inspires another generation to achieve things for their country, then we're happy to work with them, and make a Space Camp environment in their country that will be important to their students."