The Camp in Alabama Bringing Outer Space to the Blind
IF YOU WANT to be an astronaut, you must have 20/20 vision. That’s a huge barrier for blind children who dream of going to space, but it doesn’t mean they can’t get a small taste of what it’s like to go out into the cosmos.
Each year, a group of fourth to 12th graders head to the Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students in Huntsville, Alabama, to learn what it’s like to launch into orbit, float in zero gravity, and walk on the moon—even if they can’t actually see it.
“They have a huge obstacle in their way,” says photographer Robert Ormerod, “but they still have this passion, desire, and love for space—this curiosity to know where we are in the universe.”
Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students or SCIVIS—pronounced like “sci-fi” —started in 1990, after a blind woman rejected by Space Camp wrote a letter to her congressman. “She was under the impression that Space Camp was a NASA-funded program,” says coordinator Dan Oates, part of the team that helped founder Ed Buckbee create the program. “Instead of throwing the letter away, he forwarded it to Ed, and Ed thought, ‘Well, huh, that might be something to try!'”
SCIVIS website: http://www.scivis.org/
The camp, which is held each fall at the US Space and Rocket Center, draws roughly 200 kids from more than 10 countries, including the Bahamas, Israel, and New Zealand. For nearly a week, the campers wear flight suits and sleep in tiny rooms packed with bunk beds and a single shared locker. There’s no freeze-dried ice cream, but the cafeteria serves up an international menu—Belgian lunches, Russian dinners, that kind of thing—in homage to member countries of the International Space Station.
The kids undergo the same astronaut, aviation, and robotics-themed training that attendees of regular Space Camp receive—only they complete it with help from braille and large print texts, handheld magnifiers, miniature telescopes, special computer software, and two-channel headsets that let them hear commands, as well as local chatter, in mission control. They’re put into groups of 10 to 16 people that each carry out two missions, whether it’s depositing a satellite into orbit or repairing a base on the moon. An array of simulators make it all too real, from a 1/6th gravity chair, modeled after the training equipment Apollo astronauts used to practice moonwalks, to a “Moon Shot” ride that lifts off like a space shuttle. High schoolers also experience weightlessness while scuba-diving in a 24-foot-deep tank.
“If you’re totally blind you can’t see, but then at the bottom you can’t hear either,” Oates says. “They have a set of hand signals they go through so the child can communicate with the instructor on the bottom of the tank.”
Ormerod spent three days at the camp in 2016 shooting as part of his long-term project Above Us the Day. It highlights people who have never been to space, but actively cultivate the dream by participating in Mars simulations, launching homemade rockets, or studying the stars. At SCIVIS, he tried his best to keep up with the whirlwind of activity, documenting as much as possible with a Canon 5D. His heart-warming images reflect the kids’ sense of wonder, as well as their incredible resilience. “It blew me away how people got around their difficulties,” he says.
Some alumni have gone on to become astronomers and engineers. And though they may never make it to space, SCIVIS promotes a greater sense of confidence and belonging here on Earth. “A kid came up to me about three years ago and said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like in public school—kids laugh at my eyes and my cane,'” Coates says. “He said, ‘Here, I don’t have to worry about that. Thank you for creating Planet Blind.'”