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Several students from Depew Middle School will have exciting stories to share about how they spent their summer vacations come September.

Seventh- and eighth-graders Max Mages, Nick Sugg, Megan Slocum, Aaron Schaefer, Breonna Smith and Shannon O’Rawe, along with Depew Middle School technology teacher Aaron Nolan, recently spent a week at U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

The group left Depew on July 26 and returned Aug. 1 with a better understanding of the training and determination it takes to become an astronaut.

While the students joined about 120 other peers from as far away as California and Great Britain at Space Camp, Nolan participated in the Space Academy for Educators.

The Space Camp programs offered history lessons, presentations, training simulations and hands-on activities that demonstrated the importance of math, science and teamwork.

The students agreed that the training simulations and group activities were the most exciting. They were afforded the opportunity to don space suits, build rockets and other equipment and lead mock shuttle and lunar missions. During one shuttle mission, Megan led a team that performed a space walk to fix shuttle tiles, while during a lunar mission, Nick led the logistics for a crew exchange.

“You had to take a crew to the moon and bring the crew on the moon back,” he explained.

They also tested several training simulators, including the 5 Degrees of Freedom, which replicates a micro-gravity environment and moves the astronaut forward, backward, side to side, roll, pitch and yaw. Another machine they tried, the Manned Maneuvering Unit, provided similar movement to the 5 Degrees of Freedom, but students were able to control the machine with a joystick. Nolan said that the latter simulated the operation of a jetpack.

Students tried out the 1/6th Gravity Chair, which is patterned after the one Apollo astronauts used in their training for moonwalks and simulates the moon’s gravitational pull. They were asked to walk normally and to bunny-hop while strapped into the harness and chair. They deduced that astronauts decided to hop across the moon because the movement was easier.

“It felt like you were floating in the air,” Megan said.

One of the most difficult exercises was when each team was asked to build a cube on a platform that was floating in a pool. Pieces of the cube were in the water, and team members were required to retrieve the pieces, bring them back to the platform and construct the cube.

The exercise was done twice – and during the second session, team members could not speak.

“It was hard to use teamwork without talking,” Aaron Schaefer said.

At the conclusion of the week, several students brought home a renewed sense of what they would like to do with their futures.

“It kind of makes me want to be an engineer,” Max said.

The trip stressed the roles that science, math and teamwork play in everyday life, students said. While some felt that it would be a dream to be an astronaut, Space Camp helped to affirm Nick’s career goals.

“I’d rather be a nuclear particle physicist,” he said matter-of-factly.

During the educator portion of the program, Nolan attended several presentations and met astronaut Donald Thomas. Through his attendance, Nolan also earned free modeling software that he can bring back to his technology classes.

One point that really hit home for Nolan was that when presenters spoke, they stressed that if man makes it to Mars in the near future, it could be the students now sitting in our classrooms making that trip.

“That just motivated me,” he said.

Funding for the camp was provided by Northrop Grumman Corp., which has offices in Amherst. Nolan has participated in the defense giant’s science and technology programs for several years, earning $600 over the past two years for supplies for his classroom. This year, he asked company representatives about the space program and was given the opportunity to participate along with students who have expressed an interest in space exploration, science, mathematics and engineering.

The students’ parents were thankful to Northrop Grumman for giving their children the opportunity to attend Space Camp.

“They had nothing but positive and great things to say about the trip,” said Sherri Mages, Max’s mother. “I just thought it was top-notch.”

Parents agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“We were just pleased beyond belief,” said Deb Sugg, Nick’s mother. “It was like winning the lottery.”