A Forest Park student didn’t go to infinity and beyond but she did get to operate a simulator that virtually put her there. Michaela Dennis, 14, was one of only 16 students from Cook County chosen to attend NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, this summer. The eight boys and eight girls attended the Academy at the U.S. Space and Rocketry Center, the week of Aug. 1-8.

Dennis and the others didn’t pay a dime for the trip, which included a direct flight from O’Hare to Hunstville. It was funded by the University of Illinois Extension program. They received over 400 applications from students interested in attending Space Camp. Dennis qualified by maintaining a 4.0 GPA, getting a recommendation from her science teacher, Ms. Hays, and writing a brilliant 500-word thesis. 

It all started with an e-mail she received from her Challenge teacher, Ms. Finn, which shows that students should pay close attention to Ms. Finn’s e-mails. Dennis enjoys being in Challenge. 

“I also like math and science and reading and language,” Dennis confessed. “I blame my teachers. I had fun in class.” Dennis is so well-rounded it’s frightening. She is a rare combination of scientist, athlete, musician, writer and singer. Plus, she’s a people person. 

Born and raised in Forest Park, she has many friends in her hometown. 

“I like Forest Park,” she said. “People in Forest Park know how to have fun.” 

Dennis was waiting to have fun at her middle school softball game in May, when she received the e-mail announcing she had been accepted for the NASA program. 

“Wow, that’s so cool,” she thought. “It’s always been my dream to be in Space Camp.”

Michaela and her mother, Robin, first attended three monthly classes with the other chosen ones, to prepare for the trip. The meetings were held at various locations in Chicago, where mother and daughter met a mix of people: Latino, Greek, Polish, Asian and African-American. The campers ranged in age from 12 to 14. 

For many, including Dennis, flying to Huntsville was their first time on a plane. They were escorted by three adult chaperones, Sue, Megan and Semaj. When they got to Alabama, these three stayed in a nearby hotel but visited the space facility every day. The campers stayed in “habitats,” which were like dorm rooms, with four to a room. A fifth camper came to Dennis’ room. Iris was from South Korea and they became fast friends. 

“I met a lot of people from everywhere,” Dennis recalled, “Ghana, Mexico, China. Some had translators with them.” Dennis didn’t need a translator but “the southern girls knew we were the girls from Chicago.” 

One thing is for sure. She met “a lot of smart kids.”

On a typical day at Space Camp, they would awaken at 8:30 a.m. and meet their day crew trainer, Chauncy, whom they nicknamed “Superman.” He led them in exercises that tested their ability to function in stressful situations and work together as a team. The Cook County crew, for example, flew a two-hour mission to the International Space Station with the simulator

“I was a mission specialist,” Dennis recalled. “I was supposed to go on an EVA but there was a problem with the payload door. So we crashed into the space station and we all died.” On their second attempt, she was in charge of communication with mission control and they arrived safely. They wore full astronaut gear for these missions. 

“We put on astronaut suits and helmets that were hot. We sat in stressful positions, wearing headsets. There were over 1,000 buttons to push inside the Orbiter, which simulated weightlessness.”

This wasn’t the only exciting trip they took. The G-Force ride also featured weightlessness. “I forced myself to go on it,” Dennis said. “It was a dark room that spins so fast, you float to the ceiling. You don’t feel the spinning or get dizzy because you can’t see in the darkness.” 

Then there was Space Shot. “It shoots you 50 feet in the air in two seconds,” Dennis recalled, “It was worse going down because my stomach was still at the top.” 

Students bounced around inside the Mars Simulator and did rock climbing on a wall that resembled the Red Planet. They sat in a 1/6th gravity chair that simulates travel over the lunar surface. After lunch, which featured cuisine from different countries, they listened to guest speakers. These included Wendy Lawrence, a retired astronaut. 

“She still had a passion for space,” Dennis said, “but was grounded to keep her radiation level safe.” Lawrence talked about life in a space shuttle. She explained that you can’t drink carbonated beverages in zero gravity because one burp could lead to space sickness. “It was a gross day,” she commented.

But it certainly wasn’t gross having lunch with an aspiring astronaut, 18-year-old Abigail Harrison. 

“I want to be an astronaut,” Dennis declared, “or work in a job that revolves around space. I like astronomy.” She’s been hooked on extraterrestrial travel since second grade, when her mom presented her with a book all about space. Dennis doesn’t have a telescope at home, but she watched the International Space Station fly over when she was in Hunstville.

The facility also featured many earthbound attractions. 

“We got to see the Saturn V rocket, the Pathfinder shuttle. Some of the rockets were 200 feet tall.” Dennis noted that NASA is testing one of these rockets, “trying to get ready for a mission to Mars.”

At the end of the week, NASA held a graduation ceremony for the students. “We wore flight suits and shirts with our names on the back. We shook hands with astronauts and got a patch. It certified that we completed the program on August 7, 2015.” Dennis also got a signed photo from her space-traveling lunch buddy. 

Now that she’s sampled dishes from around the world, Dennis plans to keep up with her international friends. 

“I’m keeping in contact with girls from South Korea, Mexico and China,” she noted.

The Cook County kids “adopted” a class from China during Space Camp. Although there’s already been a fictional film about teens traveling to Space Camp, Netflix was on hand to film Dennis’ graduation for an upcoming documentary.

Now that she’s seen the Final Frontier, Dennis has an even scarier mission coming up. 

“I’m going to start as a freshman at Proviso Math & Science Academy,” she said. “I’m nervous about the whole process of high school.” 

Math? Science? Sounds like the perfect school for a future astronaut. 

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.