OGDEN -- Liftoff was touch and go for the cockpit crew of the orbiter Phoenix. For one thing, the astronauts got only little more than an hour of mission training, as opposed to the 18 months usually required by NASA.
Then there was the fact that the ground staffs of both Mission Control and the Operations Center, also new to their jobs, could not pronounce some of the complex names of the technical systems they were trying to power up and lock down. And to top it off, there was the distracting group of kindergartners standing around a piano in the hallway, singing about colors and raindrops.
But the Astro Camp timed mission-simulation crew of 30 fifth-graders from Ogden's Horace Mann Elementary School did manage to follow their 22-page scripts, push the right buttons on their computer screens and "launch" their craft within 20 seconds of the deadline.
And they did it all without leaving Odyssey Elementary School, where Astro Camp is located.
On liftoff, one girl cheered into her headset microphone.
"No cheering yet -- you are not done," camp director Ed Douglas barked from his station in the master control room.
"Meanie," an anonymous voice answered in a serious breach of both space and classroom protocol.
In the next few minutes, a safe landing site was selected and the Phoenix was safely back on the ground it had never left, except in students' imaginations.
Nearly every student removed headsets, stood and let out a sigh of relief.
So far this school year, Douglas has led 44 classes from multiple school districts through the mission-simulation exercise. By school year's end, he'll reach at least 64.
"How was it?" Douglas asked the students back in the training room.
"Awesome," the group answered, almost in unison.
"That's the answer I almost always get," said Douglas, who has led Astro Camp since 1990.
"My favorite answer I ever got was from a student who said, 'That was the most fun, stressful thing I've ever done.' "
After a few games and an initial debriefing, the 10- and 11-year-olds adjourned for a lunch of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, veggies and apples.
It wasn't the first mission for Shawn Hafey-Francke, a science teacher at Horace Mann.
"I've been bringing students for 10 years, eight since (space camp) moved to Odyssey from the district headquarters," he said.
"It's fun for the kids, and it helps increase their attention spans, their focus, their reading fluency and especially their teamwork. It's also fun to expose them to another field within science."
Hafey-Francke spends two weeks preparing his students for the experience, and the kids spend weeks afterward discussing the experience among themselves, he said.
The students learned later that they earned 762 points, based on their speed and accuracy. That's well above the average 525 for a returning teacher with a novice group, Douglas said.
The lowest score in that category so far this year was 467 points. The category record holder for the year is a class from Kaysville's Sam Morgan Elementary, which earned 1,601 points.
Douglas believes his job, inspiring children's interest in space, is one of the best anyone could have, short of being an astronaut.
"I remember when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," said Douglas, 58, who would have been 15 or 16 at the time. "When I was the age of these kids, you couldn't dream of being an astronaut."
Mission commander Nathaneal Woods, 10, said he was both happy and scared with the job he chose.
"I was a little bit nervous," he confessed on the way to lunch. "The buttons made me nervous, and landing happened very fast. But it was a fun experience, and I think I have an idea of what an astronaut feels like now."
Pilot Bronsen Halterman, 11, finished the simulation exhausted and happy.
"It was nerve-racking," he said. "I don't know if I pressed the right buttons or if I waited too long, but I tried my best, and it was a lot of fun. And it felt very real."
Katelyn Maltby, 10, was mission director.
"I worried a lot, but it was fun," she said. "I got to pick where we landed, which I hope was right. Mission directors have to know about temperatures and weather forecasts.
"Now I feel relieved, but still nervous. I feel good about it. I might even want to be an astronaut."