My amazing aviation summer - Savong ’18

JPA student Savong ’18 with a US Air Force Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird at the US Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville, Alabama. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
US Air Force Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird - which set the flight world speed record of 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h), approximately Mach 3.3

During the summer, I went to two summer camps that changed my life. I spent half of last year preparing for this trip, yet despite all of that preparation, I never really knew what to expect. I was headed for a five-day summer camp at the US Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville, Alabama and then an Aerospace, summer camp at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

After months of navigating through the labyrinth of bureaucracy necessary to get the travel permits I needed for my trip, I touched down at the Huntsville International Airport. The first thing I saw while traveling to the space center was a towering Saturn V rocket, which is the tallest and most powerful rocket ever built. It took astronauts to the moon and launched the Skylab space station into orbit. It is one of the many exhibits at the US Space and Rocket Center, which includes supersonic jets, other Apollo-era rockets, the first space shuttle test vehicle, Pathfinder, helicopters, and other aircraft. It is a wonderland for everyone, but for someone like me, who is interested in aerospace history, well, it was mind-blowing.

JPA student Savong ’18 summer camp winning team at the US Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville, Alabama. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
The Winning Team - Savong (second row right)

After I checked in, I went to an area surrounded by chain link fence that seemed to be a vast hangar complex located next to woods and a nearby lake. This was where I stayed for the week. My room had a name, USS Nimitz, and I shared it with about 20 boys my age with everyone sleeping on bunk beds. In short, the Aviation Challenge is similar to a military-style camp, and is all about learning about aircraft, survival, and being a pilot. Additionally, the camp includes physical training focused on discipline and attention to detail in survival situations. The physical training was hard to get used to, but over the few days, I grew to love the program and my teammates, who I now call friends. Everyone was given a nickname or ‘callsign.’ Our trainer was callsign Moonpie. My 13 teammates were Slate, Frozone, Cyborg, Python, Sega, Yankee, Skeleton, Simba, Wall-E, Trike, Dingo, Phoenix, All-State, and my callsign was Panzer. We were briefed on techniques to build makeshift shelters with materials found in the woods in a survival scenario. We got to learn and apply other skills out in the field, such as building a fire, building shelters with parachutes, and patrolling.

JPA student Savong ’18 on a Zip Line attending summer camp at the US Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville, Alabama. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
Flying on a Zip Line

The camp was packed with so many activities and events that I couldn’t possibly fit them all in here. Some of them were flying on zip lines, night-time field training exercises simulating a combat scenario, experiencing 3 g in a centrifuge, attending lectures on aviation history, touring the space museum, listening to speeches from an astronaut, a fighter pilot and an aerospace engineer who shared their experiences. Best of all, we flew in flight simulators and competed in a simulated dog fighting tournament called ‘Top Gun’ after the Hollywood movie. I was a pilot, and my friend Cyborg was my ‘Rio’ or Radio Operator. Unfortunately, I made a bad move and went into an unrecoverable dive towards the ground and crashed in the very first match. However, our team did win the tournament and broke some records which are now recorded in the Aviation Challenge’s hall of fame. On a personal note, I designed and produced a team emblem that was voted the best in the program.

JPA student Savong ’18 with the Saturn V Rocket at the US Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville, Alabama. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
Saturn V Rocket

With so many activities happening in the span of a few days, the summer camp was over too quickly. Before I knew it, we had graduated, and I moved on.

For one day between camps, I stayed with a wonderful host family, the Boyds, who were very hospitable and friendly to me and then I flew to Daytona Beach, Florida, for my next summer camp. Daytona Beach is a beautiful place. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University is next to the beach and is attached to the airport, so it was only a short drive to my dorm building, named Doolittle. Similarly to the previous summer camp, it was packed with events and activities, but this was relatively more relaxed than the mini-boot camp in Alabama. My class consisted of eighteen people, and I had the opportunity to make friends with most of them. We had two professors. Our first was Dr. Seedhouse, an amazing person. Before becoming a professor at Embry Riddle, he was named the world’s fittest man and was able to break many athletic records. He was once one of the top finalists for the astronaut selection program, but NASA didn’t choose him as he was past their age requirements. He was a fantastic teacher too. He could recall many events in space history, answer any questions the students threw at him, and identify or explain almost every single part of the International Space Station (ISS). Our second professor, Dr. Martinez, was our favorite teacher as he taught us engineering skills. He tasked us with competing in fun team engineering challenges, letting us design our own spaceship models using computer software.

JPA student Savong ’18 with the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis

My best memory of the entire summer was visiting the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. This was so exciting for all of us as this is THE location for aerospace engineers. It was the site for the most significant launches in history, including the Apollo program launches that took humans to the moon, the space shuttle launches that took modules to the ISS, and virtually every other major American rocket was launched from here. We went on a bus tour around the cape and saw the many launch sites. The museum was fantastic as well. Their exhibits and presentations were absolutely world class. During one of the presentations, we sat on the seats overlooking the actual command and control center that was used during the Apollo missions. In another presentation, the whole room was in the shape of a dome which turned out to be one big screen, displaying the launch of a space shuttle. After the video presentation was over, it showed what appeared to be an image of a space shuttle on a black sheet in front of us. Then, the sheet lifted, and the actual space shuttle, Atlantis, was behind it. We then participated in a simulated space shuttle launch. We strapped ourselves in rows of seats, then the whole platform rotated upwards almost 90 degrees, and it started shaking violently as if it was the real launch. There were so many other awesome things to see and experience at the space center, but these are just three of the most significant exhibits.

JPA student Savong ’18 with the Lunar Excursion Module LM9 for the Apollo 15 Mission at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
Lunar Excursion Module LM9

Other than learning from hands-on activities and going on tours to many different places, I also learned a lot about myself during the three weeks I was at Embry Riddle. I learned how to make friends and to let go of the reserved personality that I usually exhibit back home. I learned to make the most of my time and be positive about myself and be positive towards others. However, most importantly, what this trip gave me is confidence and optimism for my future. I have always dreamt about becoming an aerospace engineer, but this was the first time that I had actual experience. Virtually all of my friends at the camp had the same dream that I do, so it was wonderful to speak to people that I could relate to. I also made many connections to people who work in the industry.

JPA student Savong ’18 attends SpaceX Building and Launch Pad, The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral. Jay Pritzker Academy, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jay-Pritzker-Academy-Siem-Reap-Cambodia
SpaceX Building, Rocket Garden - Kennedy Space Center

During my Aerospace studies course with Dr. Seedhouse, we were shown the rubric they use for the selection of the astronaut candidates. To be selected as an astronaut, one must be a well-rounded individual. Astronauts must not only be intelligent, but be able to take care of themselves physically and to cooperate effectively as teammates. The astronauts who have gone to space were amazing individuals, most of them dreamt of going into space their entire lives. Ever since they were kids, they dreamt of touching the heavens, and so they dedicated their entire lives to pursuing their dreams and shaped themselves into individuals who were especially suited for a space mission. I think this is very inspiring. We could dedicate our own lives to one, singular grand goal and it would give everything we do meaning and purpose. That would be mean that we would wake up every day knowing exactly we want to do in pursuit of our goal and we would value the time and effort we put into some of the tedious tasks we are set or set ourselves. That is a message to all JPA students. If you have an ambition, start early and be the best person that you can be. You will have a reason to take care of yourself and put in great work at school every day. If going to space isn’t your dream, then you should find that one purpose that will define your life. Even if we don’t achieve the greatness we hoped for, consider all of the possibilities that open up from our dedication to becoming a great person.

Thank you, Savong, for sharing your story and we wish you the best on your journey towards college.