SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
One last camp visit this summer - summer camp - space camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., where youngsters from all over the world go to learn what it takes to be an astronaut. Melanie Peeples has more.
MELANIE PEEPLES, BYLINE: There is a lot going on this dimly lit, cavernous room. There's a group of kids doing lunar science experiments in one place, while two teens in white space suits hang from the ceiling above, simulating a spacewalk.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yay.
PEEPLES: To get to this point, they've learned how to design rockets, write a NASA-style mission budget and been strapped into a spinning, whirling multi-axis trainer. But now the big day has come for six campers. They're headed to Mars.
GABE WITT: OK. SOCOM, can you hear us? All right. Awesome.
PEEPLES: Sixteen-year-old Gabe Witt from Wisconsin is running through his checklist aboard his space capsule simulator.
WITT: Commander, can you hear me?
ALEX TAYLOR: I can hear you five by five.
PEEPLES: That's mission commander Alex Taylor from Washington, D.C. His job is to get his six-member crew safely to Mars. With notebooks on their laps, Taylor and the other crew members move through their mission plans just like real astronauts would.
TAYLOR: All right, guys. We should start buckling up. We have 40 seconds.
PEEPLES: Then the moment arrives. Liftoff. They're guided by a team of teenagers in mission control who monitor computer screens and control panels for anything that might go wrong.
EVA CREEL: Oh, God. All right.
PEEPLES: Eva Creel is 15. She's in charge of Systems Operation Communications - or SOCOM.
CREEL: Yeah. OK, wait. Now there's multiple - OK. There's multiple C caution warnings. So no. Let me figure this out. Sorry.
PEEPLES: She's looking at a warning light that says the solar array has not deployed. This is serious stuff. And while (??) might be an ordinary girl from Tennessee 51 weeks out of the year, this week, she's an engineer working the problem. She eventually solves it, and the crew lands safely on Mars, where Commander Alex Taylor has earned the honor of being the first to step foot on the red planet.
TAYLOR: It was Earth's will to bear our burden. And now we hope that this new world will ease its burden.
PEEPLES: Taylor is 15. And though he doesn't know yet what college he plans to go to, he's got the rest worked out.
TAYLOR: I can't wait to go to Mars.
PEEPLES: And he's keeping tabs on NASA.
TAYLOR: We do have plans for the Deep Space Gateway and deep space transportation, which should be able to aid us in going to and from Mars. Should be like a habitat so that humans can live. But my prediction is, in the 2030s to 2040s, we will be seeing human feet on Mars.
PEEPLES: Hopefully his. Space camp has been around since 1983. And seven kids who've come through here have actually gone on to become astronauts. For kids like Alex, who's been here three times and plans to come back next year, it feeds a hunger they can't satisfy anywhere else.
TAYLOR: I say this every single week. When I get back - when I get back, I say I want to go again. And it's just - it's the favorite week that I do all year. It's just so much fun. You're always always learning and working. And the days are really long, but you don't even notice them because they go by so quickly. You're just having a blast.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Everyone, hold up your feet for me for one second, OK?
TAYLOR: Yup, yup, yup, yup.
PEEPLES: And with that, Commander Taylor is called away to build another solar array. If you never got to go to space camp, don't despair. They actually have camps for adults and families. For NPR News, I'm Melanie Peeples in Huntsville, Ala.
(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "GEOMETER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.