If you have been looking through seasonal job sites and have any interest in being a camp counselor, you’ve likely come across some “Come Work At Space Camp!” ads and job listings. As with most seasonal jobs, it is hard to find a lot of good insider information to help you know what to expect and plan for your arrival at your job location. Well here is the inside scoop on everything space camp: what your living situation will be like, what you can expect from your training session, how much money you’ll make, and how to prepare for “mexican wednesday”. If you are interested in employment at space camp, make sure you read this first.
photo disclaimer: the “hab” may look cool, but I assure you that this is the only time it ever has, and only from this angle, after having the colors enhanced.
Housing: for Residential Assistants Only
Being an RA
In order to receive housing at space camp, you must apply and be accepted as a Residential Assistant, which means you must be from out of town. As an RA you will be in charge of dealing with nighttime illnesses and emergencies with the campers. It really isn’t much work at all and is worth it for the benefits: free housing and food. In exchange, you are only on RA duty about one week out of every two months. During this week you have a curfew of 10:00pm until 6:00 am. Most of the time you won’t be bothered even once, but if a camper gets sick and up-chucks, guess who gets to clean it up!
The rooms themselves are in one of the “Habs” (Habitats), the same place where the campers stay. The campers are separated by gender- males on one floor, females on another. For you as an RA, this means that you are not allowed to visit your friends of the opposite sex in their rooms at any time. That does get very annoying.
The rooms are small, old, ugly, and always the wrong temperature. Think of the ugliest and smallest room you can imagine, then throw in some primary colors to make it look like a children’s playground, add some twin sized mattresses, maybe a small desk, and minimal storage space, stick yourself in there with another RA, and you’ve got something nicer than a space camp dorm. Also, I’m sure you imagined windows. Stop imagining that. If you’re one of the lucky ones with a window, a “bubble room,” you will get a 3D bubble porthole window that blurs everything on the outside, lets in tons of ladybugs, and is impossible to clean. For those of you without bubble rooms, don’t feel left out: you’ll have tons of tiny ant friends to keep you company, and perhaps even birds living in the space above your ceiling.
Also, get used to being woken up early by screaming children in the halls.
There are 4 tiny shared staff bathrooms per floor, each with a sink area and mirror, toilet, and shower. The one upside is that there is pretty much unlimited hot water, so take a half an hour shower every day if you want to. Bathrooms are cleaned weekly by custodial staff.
Staff Lounge/ Laundry/ Kitchen
The RA’s also have access to the RA-only “ward room” which is a medium sized living room with donated couches, a tv and dvd player, 2 slow computers, 2 washers and dryers, a refrigerator, microwave, sink, vending machines, and cabinets for storing cookware. It is very difficult to cook in the kitchen area- partly because there is no stove, but also (for the people who like to use crockpots) because the space is very cramped and crowded. Both genders are allowed in the ward room together.
The Hab does have wifi throughout- although I use “throughout” loosely. Some dorm rooms on the sides don’t receive wifi at all, but you can always head downstairs to the ward room to use wifi there. Unfortunately many sites are blocked from wifi, such as facebook and job search sites, despite many complaints by the RA’s to the housing department. You can get around this in a few ways: use “https://www.” as a way to get to facebook and other sites securely, or steal internet from your smartphone and use it on your computer with a smartphone app like Barnacle Wifi Tether or Easy Tether. You can also always go sit in the lobby of the Marriott next door, where there is always free wifi.
You will have your own small mailbox in one of the habitats, and you may receive packages. There is a bin for you to put stamped outgoing letters.
What is served
I just checked the Space Camp website where they claim, “We offer a wide range of foods the normally include vegetables, fruits, proteins and dessert.” Lies! The food is by far the worst I’ve ever had; I usually ended up bringing my own. Which was limiting without a kitchen.
Food is served on a weekly rotation, so every Monday is the same as every other Monday. Mexican Wednesday is infamous sick camper day- be careful when you take your kids on rides. You will also get to enjoy hotdog Tuesday and the dreaded “Cardboard pizza and soggy green beans” Thursdays.
Meals are served 3 times per day, and breakfast is pretty much always the same: some form of badly cooked eggs and oily sausage patties, a biscuit and tiny muffin, and a banana or apple if you get lucky and arrive before they are all taken. And yes, that counts as your “wide range” of fruit for the day. Take a few bananas and stick them in your bag for letter, that’s all you’re getting, buddy. They also have small packets of cereal, both sugary and healthy brands.
The vegetables they speak of are soggy canned vegetables or fried okra that I personally can’t stand. You also get to enjoy the salad bar, where you can choose from iceburg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and a few other flavorless toppings and dressings. On Mexican Wednesday you’ll also get low quality cheddar cheese, which is better than none at all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disgusted by the food and ended up with an iceburg lettuce and crouton salad.
At lunch there are little cups of ice cream you can take.
You are usually allowed second helpings at meals.
There is also coffee available for all adults at all meals (I’ve never had it but I’ve been told by many adult campers that it is always burnt). There is also a hot water machine and sugar, which is nice because I always brought my own tea or hot cocoa which got me through the worst meal days.
There are the usual soft drink machines and some low quality juice machines, as well as milk.
What can you do about food?
You are allowed to bring food with you as long as it is homemade or from the supermarket, but you aren’t allowed to bring food from restaurants or fast food places. Good things are sandwiches, wraps, and salads, because there is no microwave or refrigerator in the cafeteria and you aren’t allowed to leave your camp team. I also tried to get creative and bring packets of flavored oatmeal which I would heat up in their styrofoam cups with the hot water near the coffee machine.
What does the food cost?
Food is always free for RA’s, but if you are not an RA then food is free only if you are with a camp team. If you have a different job for the day (support, working the simulators, etc.) you must pay a small price for the food, though far more than it is worth.
There is also a “public side” to the cafeteria just around the corner where you can buy slightly higher quality food for a higher price.
Wages for level 3 employees, which means full-time employees who may be scheduled to work at any time, just dropped from $9.00 per hour to $8.75. For other non-level 3 employees it is a dollar less.
If you get cross-trained (trained for rope courses or other space camp camps like Aviation Challenge or Robotics Camp) you get a raise of $0.25 per hour per extra training certification. They will usually only allow you to have one to two extra.
You will never see another raise again.
If you work overtime (more than 80 hours in a two week period) you are paid time and a half. You will get a lot of over time in the busy season.
If you are more ambitions and want to become a supervisor, you have to stay for a season and hope a job opens up. If you become a supervisor you will be guaranteed 40 hours of work per week, but your pay will drop by a dollar. That is right. Counselors are paid more than supervisors.
Sometimes you will get no work and sometimes you will be working triple shifts. I wasn’t schedule for my first day of work for 3 whole weeks after I completed training (I was the last of my training group to be scheduled for work.) All staff had a pretty low amount of work for a while, until peak season hit. Then you can expect to work double or even triple overtime and get next to no sleep. You’ll wake your campers up in the morning at 6:45 and put them to bed at night at 9:30, then walk around the habitat on “lights out duty” until 10:00, 11:00, or sometimes even later. That is not only for RA’s, so add in commute time and shower time, and you can see that a few weeks of this schedule will leave you with no social life and severely low on sleep.
Even on these triple overtime weeks, you won’t get a single 5-minute break during the day. Your meals with your camp teams are supposed to count as breaks, even though they are sometimes just as stressful or as much work as other activities since you can’t escape from your camper’s and chaperone’s questions and you need to keep your team under control and lead them through the cafeteria and garbage lines.
Your schedule will be given to you two weeks in advance. There is a limited opportunity to swap shifts with people and ask for days off in advance.
There are a ton of jobs you might be scheduled for besides leading a camp team, such as working the sims (climbing wall, space shot ride, etc.), guarding the museum, general support, being the mascot at an event, travel advertising, and whatever else they think up. You really can’t predict your schedule.
Orientation & Training
I loved orientation. That was by far my favorite part of the entire experience. I spent 3 or so weeks with my team of coworkers, learning about NASA history, playing games, building model rockets, listening to lectures, and generally being goofy. You get a stipend for the training period, and it pretty much just feels like you’re getting paid to hang out with your friends all day.
During training all meals are free for all trainees.
You will have to take a few very easy written exams, most of which you can bring note cards for. You will also have to give what are known as “teachbacks,” which means you present a lecture to a tester as you would to a group of campers. People (including myself) tend to get nervous for teachbacks, but they are also easy and nothing to worry about. Plus, you’ll always be able to re-do them if you mess up badly.
The schedule is packed during training. You will get 30 minutes to an hour for lunch (if it is an hour you can leave the camp and come back). Training usually starts early and ends late, and often you will be up late studying afterwards. This means that there isn’t much time to socialize outside of work, but since socializing is what you are doing all day during training, it doesn’t feel too restricting.
You learn so much about so many things during training, but you’ll realize pretty quickly that you didn’t learn quite enough. You’ll become good at filling time with games and bathroom breaks for your teams.
Where do I even begin? This section may turn into a rant.
Some managers are just plain bad. They may treat the crew trainers in a way that is very disrespectful and patronizing, respond to simple and legitimate work-related questions as if they were a personal attack, say blatantly rude and antagonizing things in a way that seems as if they are meant to induce fear, and completely ignore crew trainers by avoiding eye contact and refusing to even say hello. Some managers show clear favoritism to some employees who are generally regarded as poor employees by their peers. There is no recognition, praise, or thanks for a job well done.
You will at some point be thrown under the bus in order for management to save face in front of customers. Whether or not you are in the wrong is irrelevant. I once took care of a problem that the managers had promised me they would solve, which of course they did not, and consequently I was yelled at by a manager, made to look foolish and unruly in front of a chaperone, and then thanked by the same manager for solving the problem after the chaperone left.
There are no staff meetings so there is no way to ever correct communication issues. Staff learns about “problems” in the staff notes via email, where they read about new rules they need to follow or privileges that have been revoked because of a very specific incident.
There is no way to talk to managers about problems. During training they say they are there to help, but like many other things, that is a blatant lie. If you ever ask a question or make a suggestion to a manager (with some exceptions, not all management staff is bad), they will make you feel like you are an idiot for asking, if they even bother to answer.
If you are looking for a positive work environment, stay far, far away from space camp.
For me what made up for all the terrible aspects of living and working at space camp were my co-workers. We all formed such strong bonds of friendship. The staff is full of smart, interesting, and creative people, many of whom will have travel experience or want to travel. You will run into southern hospitality and slow, calm, and happy demeanors everywhere you go. Be aware that you will be in the Bible belt- it was a little strange for me to be around so many hardcore Christians, although it usually didn’t make a difference in day to day life.
Although much of the staff will be southern with that sweet southern drawl, there will also be people from all around the US and abroad. Most people are young- generally finishing college or in their 20’s, with a few middle aged and older thrown in the mix. And although I was admittedly curious to meet a real live southern racist, I never met one racist person in my time at space camp. Huntsville seems much more socially liberally than I expect other areas of the deep south are.
Leading a Team
I can’t really give this a rating since it is such a subjective experience. There is so much to say about it- I could write a book and still not cover everything. What you need to know is that you need to be flexible and patient. You will mostly be leading children ages 10-16 in groups of anywhere from 10 people to, at times during “block scheduling,” up to 40 children. You will be the only counselor on your team, there are no junior counselors or co-counselors to help you. This makes it very difficult to organize the team at points.
You do everything. You give the history lessons, lead the team from place to place, wake them up, put them to bed, help them get food, lead Space Bowl (space jeopardy), lead games, teach how to build model rockets, operate astronaut simulators, help kids on the rock wall, prepare kids for space missions, assist space walks, etc etc etc. What this essentialy means is you NEVER get a break, except during short presenter-led lectures about once per day. You never get to sit down and rest. Most camps hire activity leaders who specialize in one area, like art, but at space camp, you are teaching art too. Always carry colored pencils.
The best advice I can give is lay down the law when you first meet your team. Give them your rules and it will help them to be more cooperative through the week. It is also a good idea to play get-to-know-you games at the beginning, but none of those awkward name games because kids hate those.
Things to do in Huntsville
Huntsville is a fairly small town (though its residents would call it a city). Its got your standard Target and Walmart, Krogers and Publix, and a good amount of chain restaurants. There are a few bars and clubs (Sammy T’s is popular), a bowling ally, an ice rink, a really creepy indoor glow in the dark miniature golf course, a few malls, an upscale outdoor mall at Bridgestreet, a pretty nice dollar movie theater, and not too much else.
There is some excellent hiking to be done within 15 minutes to half an hour away by car.
The only way to get around is by car. If you are an RA and don’t plan on bringing one, don’t fret. I didn’t have one either, but so many of your RA and non-RA friends will have cars that you won’t have a problem hitching a ride. The staff always invites each other when they go out.
I’m sure I’ve left out a lot of information, so feel free to ask questions in the comments or email me for more specific information.