In June 1986, a little movie called “Space Camp” opened in theaters. From what I can remember, the movie wasn’t a big hit upon release, and a lot of people my age don’t remember it at all. That’s a shame, because even after over thirty years, “Space Camp” is still one entertaining film.
“Space Camp” starred Kate Capshaw as Andie Bergstrom, a fully trained astronaut who hasn’t made it into space yet because the idiots at NASA keep passing her up. After missing out on the latest shuttle mission, Andie and her husband Zach Bergstrom (Tom Skerritt), spend the rest of the summer running NASA’s Space Camp. For those of you don’t know, Space Camp is a summer like camp where kids and teens learn what it takes to be an astronaut. As I kid I dreamed of going to Space Camp, but my famoly was cheap.
Anyways, as a Space Camp instructor, Andie is in charge of a team of five kids. Her “crew,” is literally star-studded, at least by 1986 standards. First there’s Kathryn Fairly (Lea Thompson), she idolizes Andie and wants to be the first female shuttle commander. Next you’ve got Rudy Tyler (Larry Scott), a young kid who loves science, but admits he’s not always very good at it. The other girl on the crew is Tish Ambrosé (Kelly Preston), she’s not your typical “Valley girl.” Tish is arguably the smartest member of the team and has perfect memory recall. which comes in handy at times.
Rounding out the “Space Camp” crew, and making their feature film debuts are, Tate Donovan and Joaquin Phoenix. Donavan plays Kevin Donaldson, and arrogant and selfish student to whom Andie assigns the role of Commander. Pre-crazy Joaquin Phoenix is credited as Leaf Phoenix for some reason. He stars as Max Graham, an over eager 12-year-old boy whom Andie finally allows to stay at the main camp instead of the junior camp.
The basic plot of the movie is actually rather simple. The space campers, along with Andie, get blasted into space by accident. This fiasco started when Joaquin Phoenix’s character becomes friends with an artificially intelligent robot named Jinx. The little robot tricks the NASA computers into forcing a routine maintenance solid rocket booster test into a full-on launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.
Because the shuttle wasn’t ready-for-flight, none of the essential systems onboard are ready to go. This means once in space, Andie and the kids encounter an insurmountable list of problems, including lack of oxygen, no communication with ground control, missed landing windows, and more.
It’s a far-fetched plot sure, but not as far fetched as Jinx was. Maybe today NASA has robots that can do everything Jinx can, but I highly doubt the agency had anything close to Jinx back in 1986. As a kid watching this movie back then, the robot was always
the most unbelievable thing in the film. Once I was older, I also realized that there is no way NASA would allow a bunch of kids to sit in a space craft for any test. But eight year old me loved the idea of riding out the booster test on Atlantis.
With a release of June 6, 1986, “Space Camp” was released less than six months after the horrible tragedy of the Challenger. The movie was likely in the can by the time the challenger happened, but it was probably still responsible for the film taking in under $10 million at the box office. I don’t think the general movie-going public was ready for a movie about a Space Shuttle.
Regardless, I still love “Space Camp” because I got to see how the actual Space Camp worked. The movie shows all the training the campers face, and you even get to see a lot of the facilities. Also, it was nice to see the kids learn to work together in order to get home. Along the way the kids learn what their strengths and weaknesses are, and I imagined kids at Space Camp faced similar things.
“Space Camp” is a very 80’s movie, and it shows, especially in the special effects. Everything else from the music, to the clothes, to kids’ attitudes, scream 1980’s. But for someone like me that grew up in that decade, it all felt realistic and relatable. Maybe that’s why I still have fond memories of seeing the movie when it came out.