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Vista seniors cross ‘off bucket list’ after return from adult space camp

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VISTA — Ever since she was a little girl, Kitty Morse of Vista has had a fascination with space and recently, she fulfilled a lifetime fantasy of going to space camp.

“It’s been part of my ‘bucket list’ for a while,” said the 72-year old Morse, who is also a travel writer a cookbook author.

In mid-February, Morse headed to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for Adult Space Camp for two days. Along for the space ride was friend and neighbor Patricia McArdle, also an author, and a videographer.

“We got there a day ahead: it takes almost as long to get to Huntsville than to go to the moon,” Morse said.

While it may sound like an exclusive camp, it hosts about 850 kids a day and offers robotics camp, STEM activities, underwater astronaut training and much more. The center houses the shuttle Enterprise, a Saturn V rocket, a lunar rover, rockets, boosters, capsules and space suits used in NASA missions, Morse said.

Additionally, there is currently the world-premiere exhibition, “Apollo: When We Went To The Moon,” that chronicles the Space Race and the moon landing, featuring Neil Armstrong’s space suit, gloves, and other mementos, as well as a lunar rover, and a “leave your footsteps on the moon” exhibit until January 2020.

Kitty Morse, of Vista, said the best part of Adult Space Camp was Extra Vehicular Activity where she wore a spacesuit for a simulated space expedition. Photo courtesy of Kitty Morse

“The best part is that docents are retired scientists who worked on various aspects of the space program.  I learned that at least five of the astronauts, all women, are graduates of Space Camp,” Morse said.

Long time coming

Morse said she picked up a brochure for Adult Space Camp in 1996 and kept sliding it under her desk calendar every year — for 23 years.

“Last December, I checked my ‘bucket list,’ went online to find out if the camp was still in operation (www.RocketCenter.com), and enrolled,” she said. “The three-day program (with graduation ceremony) costs $549. That includes two  nights in the Habitat (bunks, very comfortable) all meals, a T-shirt and memories for two lifetimes.”

Once the women arrived, they became involved in a set scheduled of activities for Adult Space Academy. Team leader Kristen gave them an orientation and they got acquainted with their fellow campers on TEAM PIONEER (12), mostly techies from their 30s to 40s, from all parts of the country: Hawaii, Boston, Indiana and Los Angeles.

“That first day, we held a practice run for our EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) the next day to repair the lunar module,” she said.

Morse, who has dreamed of the opportunity forever, saidit was everything she hoped it would be.

“It was, for me, exhilarating and the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “I have been a huge space fan since the moon landing in 1969, and I am fortunate to have met Neil Armstrong. I ‘blame’ it all on Neil!”

Morse actually met Armstrong by fluke years earlier.

“I was fortunate to spend an evening with Neil Armstrong in Vista,” she said. “Growing up in Casablanca, Morocco, we used to follow the American and Russian satellites that blinked across the night sky on their daily flights around the globe.”

The unexpected invitation to meet this world-famous figure came on Friday, April 29, 2005.

“I am a fan of the moon landing. I organized a moon party in Milwaukee, where I attended university, on D-Day, July 20, 1969, forcing my family and friends to eat green cake,” she said. “Little did I know that decades later I would meet the man on the moon on my home turf in Vista.”

On April 20, 2005, she and her husband, Owen, got a call from Bob, a neighbor and distinguished retired Marine test pilot: “Would you like to come over for drinks? We are expecting a special guest,” he said. 

Armstrong was to drop by on his way to accept an award from the Golden Eagles, a prestigious association of military flyers. That year, the organization was holding its annual meeting in San Diego.

On meeting the space pioneer, Morse had been advised not to allude to the moon nor bring the subject up in conversation. Neither should she ask for an autograph or ask him to pose for pictures.

What did they talk about?

“Bob, Neil, and my husband (a retired Navy dentist) shared memories of their time in the military,” she said. “At one point the astronaut switched to another subject: food, and better yet, Moroccan food. I was born in Casablanca, and Moroccan food is my specialty. Armstrong, we found out, was an avid golfer who had been a guest of the King of Morocco on numerous occasions. Indeed, Hassan II, father of the present king, appointed Armstrong a member of his newly formed Academy of Sciences, which gave the man on the moon the opportunity to visit the North African country and sample its cuisine. He particularly relished the briouats (Moroccan eggrolls) that I made for our meeting.”

Best part of Space Camp

Morse said the best part of the Adult Space Camp experience was the EVA.

“I had to don a space suit including an ice jacket (the suit is so hot that astronauts need to wear an ice jacket) for an extended-duration simulated mission,” she said. “I weigh about 115 pounds, and the spacewalk outfit weighs about 25 pounds. Thank you decades of Jazzercise for keeping me in shape! Then, I ‘climbed’ through a wormhole into ‘space.’”

She said the most difficult was being tethered to a harness about 15 feet off the ground, pulling herself by the arms around the repair area, retrieving an antenna, then more pulling, and finally handing the antenna to McArdle, who stood on the “arm” and installed the new antenna on top of the module.

“I felt my muscles for three days afterward,” she said. “Other members of our team were in the command ship, talking to mission control on the ground, to execute a simulated landing for the shuttle Enterprise. All very realistic.”

Golden years? Ha

And even though she is in her Golden Years and while others might be afraid to participate in a such a feat, she said age didn’t deter her at all.

“I did it because I can,” she said. “I am having trouble to adapt to my chronological age. I turned 72 the day before Space Camp, and, like most Baby Boomers, I refuse to grow old demurely. Most of my friends thought I was crazy to do this — but they were also very curious.”

Added McArdle: “Why not? We’re both healthy and curious, and who knows how much more time we have on this amazing planet? Some of our friends did think we were nuts to go to Adult Space Camp at our age, but I think they might also be a bit jealous.”

To the moon

If she could go to the moon, Morse said she would in a heartbeat.

“Yes, I would, though the moon landing is history, and now surpassed by preparations for going to Mars,” she said. “Don’t think I would volunteer for that anymore. That planet is really too far from Earth!”

When she isn’t donning a space suit or dreaming of landing on the moon, Morse’s continues on her 30-year career as a food and travel writer, cooking teacher and public speaker. She has authored 10 cookbooks, five of are on the cuisine of her native Morocco. Her latest, “Mint Tea and Minarets: a banquet of Moroccan memories,” is available as an eBook on Amazon.

Like Morse, McArdle said Adult Space camp was better than “we expected — an overwhelming and exhausting 360-degree experience that kept us going from 7:30 in the morning until 9 at night. We simulated the launch of a space shuttle, experienced 1/6 moon gravity, built model rocket ships, and had breakfast with an engineer who had designed the lunar rovers that were ridden by American astronauts on the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 moonshots in 1971 and 1972. We worked in a simulated mission control center and conducted experiments on a mockup of the international space station. We also got to visit the real mission control center for the International Space Station at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.”

McArdle also has a fascination with space and said: “Space is humanity’s newest (but probably not our last) bold frontier. The more we learn about the vastness, the magnificence and the dangers of outer space, the more we are able to appreciate our beautiful blue planet, which has evolved so perfectly to support life. 

“We are an intensely curious species. Exploring space is the greatest challenge we have ever faced. We just can’t resist it. The fact that Kitty and I were both privileged to meet astronaut Neil Armstrong on separate occasions has also sparked our interest in the space program.”

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