SHERIDAN — Kathryn Nichols became interested in science a few years ago, and for the last several months, space has piqued her fascination.
Nichols’ interests took a giant leap this summer when she attended the U.S. Space Camp at the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, from July 29 to Aug. 3.
Nichols, an eighth-grader at Sheridan Junior High School, said the camp — which concluded with campers receiving graduation certificates — went even better than she hoped.
“I was kind of nervous at first because it was my first long trip away from home, but I felt right at home there,” Nichols said.
Nichols was one of several hundred middle-schoolers from across the globe who attended the camp. The days were chock-full of group activities and competitions, beginning around 7 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m.
Nichols’ group — named Callisto, after one of Jupiter’s moons — consisted of about 20 people from various states, including Florida, Indiana and Maryland.
The group designed special patches to go along with their solid blue astronaut suits and received one of three outstanding group awards at the end of camp.
Retired astronaut Ken Cameron, who flew several space shuttle missions in the 1990s, handed out the awards and spoke to campers a few times over the course of six days.
Nichols was also part of a smaller team that recorded the top height on a rocket it designed. The rocket sailed so high, no one could find it when it landed.
Kathryn’s father, Jackson Nichols, said his daughter called after the first day and said it was going pretty well but not overly exceptional. When she called the next night, Kathryn sounded enthusiastic and was determined to attend the camp again in the summer of 2019.
After the camp ended, Nichols explored the U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum with her family. The history and real-life objects used on previous space missions only served to enhance her interest in space, which began in a unique way.
Nichols said Luciana, an American Girl doll who is an aspiring astronaut, initially made her want to learn more about the subject of space.
She also has a family connection. Before going to the camp, Nichols talked with her great-grandfather, James C. Stokes, who worked as a NASA engineer from the late 1950s to 1980s on dozens of space missions.
Nichols looks up to Stokes and said she learned a lot about his experiences after talking with him at his home in South Carolina.
“He sat next to me on the couch and I asked all the kinds of questions an astronaut would want to know,” Kathryn Nichols said. “I didn’t really know much about it until after the interview. He had some pretty cool stuff to share.”
Nichols also admires Mae Jemison, who in 1992 became the first African-American woman to travel to space. Along with a growing interest in the topic, Nichols said the space suit design appealed to her.
She hopes to eventually become an astronaut.
“I don’t know how to describe it — it’s just so cool to me,” Nichols said. “Especially after interviewing my grandfather and seeing the kinds of things an astronaut does.”
Moreover, Nichols is enrolled in a science course this year that focuses on space, perfect timing for her burgeoning curiosity about the subject.
With the support of her family and positive experiences on which to look back, Nichols will move forward with her space dreams. Long-term, her ambitions don’t end at merely becoming an astronaut and possibly taking part in space missions. Nichols has set her sights high: becoming the first woman to walk on Mars.