Conall Elkins went back to school with quite a story to tell.

Over the summer, the 11-year-old Homestead Elementary student spent a week training like an astronaut at Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. This was a dream come true for Elkins, who is the son of Michael and Elaine Elkins of Crossville.

“Conall has dreamed of becoming an astronaut since he was about 7,” said his mother. “At that age, he was thinking about what he wanted to be. While he considered a lot of different careers, it was not until he considered becoming an astronaut that he got excited by his selection.”

Space Camp is an educational program that promotes science, technology, engineering and math while training students with hands-on activities and missions based on teamwork, leadership and problem-solving. It is specifically designed for trainees who have a passion for space exploration like Elkins.

“We are very proud of Conall and not just for his excellent grades,” said Elaine. “We fully support his dreams and take him to museums and exhibits on space.”

In March 2016, the family visited the Kennedy Space Center, where Elkins got to meet astronaut Don Thomas. He inspired Elkins to chase his dream, reminding him that he was the perfect age to become one of the first astronauts to go to Mars.

“His dreams of what he wanted to be as a grownup only got better with that knowledge,” said Elaine.

While there Elkins got to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which sparked a desire to see the remainder of NASA’s space fleet.

In fall 2017, he saw Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. During spring break earlier this year, he traveled to New York to see Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.  

“The only space shuttle he has not seen is in Los Angeles — the Endeavor,” said Elaine. 

Space Camp offered Elkins views of other notable space exhibits, including the Apollo 16 capsule, the National Historic Landmark Saturn V rocket and the Shuttle Orbiter Pathfinder.

However, Elkins’ favorite part was training with a team that flew a simulated space mission to the International Space Station (ISS), the moon and Mars. He and his crew participated in experiments and successfully completed an extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk. They even got to sleep in quarters designed to resemble the ISS.

Elkins enjoyed training in the simulators like those used by NASA. He described how he was once strapped into a chair that spun in every possible direction to simulate how it would feel to be in a spacecraft that bounced off Earth’s atmosphere on re-entry. 

“You don’t get sick or dizzy at all because you are the center point,” said Elkins. 

Another awesome learning experience was the gravitational pull simulator. Again, strapped into a seat, he experienced what it would be like to walk on the moon, which has weaker gravity than Earth.

“The lesson is to control your movements so you do not get out of control,” he said. “You quickly learn to jump for distance, not for height.”

Elkins’ favorite simulator involved him acting as the Guidance, Navigation and Controls Engineer (also known as the GNC) in the control room for a Mars landing. He had to look for a good spot on Mars, considering things like the terrain and the weather when the ship would land and take off. He could make the call to delay the takeoff and felt like a valuable member of a real NASA team.

The week concluded with a graduation ceremony. He was presented with a certificate of completion, wings and a customized team patch.

More than 850,000 trainees have graduated from a Space Camp program since its inception in 1982, including European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA astronauts Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Dr. Kate Rubins, Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Christina Koch, who is serving on board the ISS. 

Elkins wants to follow in their footsteps by becoming the captain on a mission to Mars or the mechanical engineer on board for the mission. If he does not get the privilege to have those positions, he said he would like to be a mechanical engineer designing the spacecraft that go to Mars.

“He wants to see for himself what it is like going through space and look at Earth from a spacecraft,” said Elaine. “Conall would be proud to help make history for the United States space program.”

Missy Wattenbarger may be reached at mwattenbarger@crossville-chronicle.com

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