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HHS freshman Amann reaches for the stars at Space Camp

Kirsten Amann with the “telescope” her grandfather made for her out of PVC pipe when she was a child and installed inside the family’s backyard playground.(Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)1 / 4
One of the highlights of Kirsten Amann’s Space Camp experience was meeting retired Astronaut Wendy Lawrence. (Submitted photo)2 / 4
Kirsten Amann with her mom Susan on the family’s back deck, where Kirsten still likes to stargaze on clear nights. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)3 / 4
Kirsten Amann near the entrance to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. Students and teachers from all 50 states and 58 international locations attended Space Camp last year. (Submitted photo)4 / 4

Fifteen-year-old Kirsten Amann can’t recall exactly how old she was, but very early on in life, she looked up at the night sky and fell drop-dead in love with what she saw.

“I can’t remember the exact moment, but I remember going out on the deck with my dad and finding constellations, and figuring out which stars they were made of,” Amann explains, referring to her father John, a Hudson High School Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher.

Kirsten adds: “I’ve always loved space and the idea that outside our atmosphere, there are things that we can’t see and probably will never touch or comprehend. The fact that there probably is other life somewhere out there in outer space was always really exciting too.”

So enthralled by the distant heavens was Amann by age 6 that her grandfather built her a toy telescope out of PVC pipe and installed it in the family’s backyard playground.

“She still goes out on clear evenings sometimes just to look at the stars and constellations,” notes her mother Susan, a social-work minister at St. Paul’s Regions Hospital who also has a professional relationship with Hudson’s United Methodist Church.

In August, the vast horizons of space got a lot closer for Kirsten when she got a rare chance to experience what astronaut training and space exploration are like at NASA’s one-week Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., home of the Marshall Spaceflight Center.

Another rarity: Amann, now a freshman at Hudson High School, was one of only 18 percent of hundreds of applicants who impressed Space Camp gatekeepers enough to win a full-ride scholarship.

Kirsten was part of Space Camp’s Space Academy Program, which is specifically designed for talented youngsters with a particular interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

She and her Space Camp team trained for and flew simulated Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station in man-made low-gravity conditions.

Once aboard there, she and her teammates completed in-space experiments and aced a successful extra-vehicular activity (EVA), or space walk.

“It showed us what it’s like to go out with minimum gravity and big, awkward gloves,” Amann recalls.

“It was really hot inside the space suit, which was really baggy. Just really hot.”

In another ultra-realistic exercise, Amann also got to sample one of the myriad heart-pounding emergencies  that can spring up from nowhere in space.

She was that Shuttle mission’s Environmental and Emergency Communications Commander, in charge of determining whether all systems and weather conditions were “go.”

Her emergency was a perfect storm:  an avalanche of system “anomalies” -- unusual or unexpected circumstances -- during a simulated landing.

“At one point, the entire anomaly board lit up. It was all flashing and beeping, and we didn’t know what we should do. Then suddenly it all shut off,” Amann explains.

“We were all waiting for Cap Com (Capsule Communications) to tell us when it was okay to deploy the landing gear and parachute, but we didn’t hear anything. So at one point, we decided for ourselves, ‘Well, let’s do it now.’ It turned out that if it had been five seconds later, we would have crashed.”

Future astronaut?

There were also lectures, other training and experiments, and new friends from South Dakota, Arkansas, Chicago and all over the rest of the nation during her packed, full-time Space Camp week.

Students and teachers from all 50 states and 58 international locations attended Space Camp last year.

One of Amann’s biggest takeaways from the experience: “There’s so much more that goes into space travel than I ever imagined. And every little thing is important, so it takes a whole team to make sure everything’s going smoothly and well.”

It was all capped off by the opportunity to meet retired NASA Astronaut Wendy Lawrence at graduation.

Asked if she’d like to become an astronaut now that Space Camp is over, Amann replies:

“It’s not very likely for people to become an astronaut, but it’s definitely something I’d like to work for. At graduation, I met and spoke to Wendy Lawrence, and she said that the study of science is definitely the most important thing. She said, ‘Find something you like and have some kind of science career.’”

That’s a natural for Amann too, note her parents, whose son Nathan is a sixth-grader at Hudson Middle School.

“She’s always been scientifically inclined. It was always bugs, dinosaurs and plants when she was younger,” mom Susan says.

Beginning in third grade, Kirsten went on to stretch her thinking chops in the Hudson School District’s annual Destination Imagination program, where student teams select their own “challenge” that demonstrates their collective intelligence, teamwork and creativity.

Last year, Amann and her teammates -- Paige Garza, Yasha Bol, Jacob and Grace Schroeder, Dani Gasman and Carter Reimer  -- took first place in a regional Destination Imagination competition and later finished third statewide.

Their project explored phobias through the story of a youngster who’s afraid of mirrors but gets transported -- with his mischievous sister’s “help” -- to a distant fantasyland where they’re everywhere.

Many hats

Last year, Amann and Hudson Middle School classmates Garza, Bol and Anna Arthur also won the regional eCYBERMISSION Challenge environmental problem-solving competition for a project showing how to reduce excess nitrogen in tap water.

A description of that project was included in Amann’s rigorous Space Camp application, along with three essays, a homemade NASA “mission patch” and letters of recommendation from middle school technology instructor Chris DeLeon, science teacher Mary Bee and Gifted and Talented Program instructor Sarah Engstrom-Yde.

“It was a lot more than I expected,” Amann says of the application process.

Whether she goes on to become an astronaut or chooses another profession, it’s clear to anyone who talks to her for more than a few minutes that Kirsten will always have the right stuff -- in many more areas than science.

Music is just one. She’s been singing and playing the violin since fourth grade and is part of the high school orchestra. She also picked up the ukulele recently.

Figure skating is a passion too. She takes lessons in Stillwater and plans to join a skating club there this winter.

One of her Space Camp application essays -- on how she’s overcome challenges in her life -- focused in part on how she finally conquered a tricky backwards-crossover skating move.

Amann’s days have gotten even busier lately: She will act and sing in the high school’s production of “Mary Poppins” in November.

All along, Amman says, her parents have been right there with her.

“Whenever I’ve wanted to try something new, they’ve always encouraged me,” she notes.

Asked about the time management involved, John Amann pauses and smiles broadly before answering: “We do a lot of negotiating.”

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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