Local student graduates from Space Camp

Vivienne Verspeek’s long list of memorable experiences in her week-long training session at Space Camp has more deeply inspired her interest in STEM.

Graduation is a momentous life event, but not too many can say they experienced it at 11 years old.

For young Cottage Grove student Vivienne Verspeek, her graduation from Space Camp has awarded her a starry-eyed perspective of her future.

Vivienne spent a week in August at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“I feel really proud that I managed to push through that week,” she said. “And then I got to graduate, so I’m really happy about that.”

The rocket center is a Smithsonian Affiliate and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s official visitor center while the camp is run by the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission.

Vivienne’s step-father, Christian Straight, has been an inspirational figure in getting the younster hooked on science.

Straight spent eight years at NASA as a project engineer, which at times saw him travel to Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center across from the Space Camp.

“We looked across the parking lot and looked at Space Camp, and I said, ‘You know, that would be really awesome to go to one of these days,’” he recalled.

Decades later, that wish would come true as he escorted Vivienne to her first day of camp.

“One of the things that I’m really interested in is the idea of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) for K-12,” said Straight, adding that he has asked Vivienne’s teachers about options in the public school system.

“There was nothing really to be found and I thought, ‘Well, [Space Camp] might be a way to excite her into delving into STEM,’” he said. “And she just jumped at it.”

Vivienne’s eyes light up when she recalls her Space Camp adventures.

“I was really excited to be able to go to Space Camp and get the experience that other kids may not have,” Vivienne said. “But I was really grateful for my dad for giving me that experience. I think I might really jump to STEM now.”

The week-long educational program promotes STEM by training students with hands-on activities and missions encouraging teamwork, leadership and problem solving.

While attending the camp, Vivienne trained with a team which simulated a space mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Vivienne served the role of PAYCOM (Payload Communications Manager), helping guide the process.

“The mission went perfectly fine,” she said proudly.

 Vivienne returned her crew to Earth in time to graduate with honors.

At the camp, students sleep in quarters designed to resemble the ISS and train in simulators like those used by NASA.

Vivienne was also wowed when she got the chance to see the Saturn V rocket up close, a launch vehicle which supported the Apollo program and was used to launch the first American space station Skylab.

She also met two astronauts — Victor Glover and Robert “Hoot” Gibson in her time there.

Almost one million trainees have graduated from a Space Camp program since its inception in 1982. Some graduates have even gone to space, including European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA astronauts Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Dr. Kate Rubins, Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Christina Koch, who set the record for the longest duration space flight by a female.

Going on 12 years old, Vivienne is aging out of Space Camp. Her eyes are now set on moving up to the next step, Space Academy, next year.

In the meantime, however, her parents would like to find other resources to keep STEM a part of her life.

“But that’s the dilemma we face, right? Because we’re sitting here trying to nurture her understanding and her excitement about STEM,” said Straight, lamenting that such resources are difficult to find.

Straight has been routinely feeding Vivienne’s curiosity for STEM in the home environment, providing “mini lectures” at the breakfast table.

“We actually started to do stuff about space way before Space Camp,” said Vivienne.

For instance, in the weeks leading up to NASA’s landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, Straight and Vivienne participated in a five-week program designed for kids which gives instructions on how to do home experiments.

The two simulated how material ejects from impact points by throwing objects into layers of chocolate and flour and videotaping the results.

“It was pretty cool. I enjoyed it,” laughed Straight.

Getting Vivienne into Space Camp has also given her a new vision of where her STEM curiosities might lead her. 

She recalled a woman at the camp telling her, “When kids come here, they want to become an astronaut. But when they leave, they want to become something else.”

This certainly rang true for Vivienne, who romanticized the idea of being an astronaut at first.

“But when I left, I wanted to become an astronomer,” she said. “Now I’m more excited and pushed more to do my dream of becoming an astronomer. I’m really happy about that.”

Vivienne recommended that other kids who have an interest in STEM should let the adults in lives know.

Her own next step? She’ll be convincing her parents to buy a new telescope.

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