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Southern Ute youth go to Space Camp in Alabama

Auq-uwey O'John, (center) graduates from Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, alongside Robert "Hoot" Gibson, retired NASA astronaut (left).
Danny Jaques
Auq-uwey O'John, (center) graduates from Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, alongside Robert "Hoot" Gibson, retired NASA astronaut (left).

Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, is a hub for space fans around the world who want to experience NASA-based astronaut training. Campers learn about science and engineering, lead simulated missions, and see real rocket ships.

Danny Jaques, a retired science teacher from Ignacio Junior High School, makes the trip possible for many students in southwest Colorado every summer.

He’s been to Space Camp 32 times and has taken over 500 students from the Ignacio area.

“I'm the biggest kid there. I have a lot of fun. I really wanted to be an astronaut, but growing up in southwestern Colorado, I didn't know the route. But I figured I could get a degree, come back to my hometown, and teach about space,” said Jaques.

Jaques earned his teacher’s license and studied biology and agriculture at Fort Lewis College. He taught science at Ignacio Junior High School for 36 years.

He helps fund the students’ trip to Space Camp in Alabama by selling dehydrated space-ready foods and drink mixes that he makes himself. He makes salsa, margarita mix, and coffee.

“It’s made up of dehydrated diced tomatoes, tomato powder, hatch green chili, diced onions, chili powder from New Mexico, garlic powder, diced onions,” said Jaques.

This year, powered in part by the sales of space salsa, eight kids got to go to Space camp.

Amos O’John is a 12-year-old Southern Ute tribal member who attends Bayfield Middle School. His brother, Auq-uwey, 17, attends Bayfield High School.

“The first thing you see is the Saturn V rocket,” said Amos.

“They're very big. It's hard to explain how big they are,” said Auq-uwey.

“Like skyscrapers,” said Amos.

The O’John brothers went to Space Camp with six other students and four chaperones. Amos shared pictures from the trip.

“One photo is where I was launching my rocket. It was the first launch,” said Amos.

The brothers launched miniature rocket ships they built out of toilet paper rolls.

“You can say they're maybe two feet tall. As it launches, it just goes into the sky about three feet, does a little loop-de-loop and hits the ground, comes towards the woman who launched it, and she just starts booking it as it kind of explodes,” said Auq-uwey.

Auq-uwey O’John said he appreciates his unique experiences at Space Camp and recognizes that not everyone gets this chance.

“For us to be in a small town like this with very little opportunity, it's technically (a) once in a life, you know, scenario that you have,” said O’John.

Auq-uwey and Amos O’John are grateful for Danny Jaques organizing the trip.

“If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have been able to come,” said Auq-uwey.

Amos and Auq-uwey O'John at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
Danny Jaques
Amos and Auq-uwey O'John at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.

The O’John brothers aren’t the only ones affected by their trip to Space Camp with Jaques. One of Jaques’ former students has worked at NASA for almost 20 years. He credits his old teacher and his trip to Space Camp for fostering his interest in rocket science.

“I am a materials research engineer at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. And I work on a material called shape memory alloys,” said Bigelow.

Bigelow was a student in Jaques’ science class in the 1990s.

“I got a lot of my love of science from his classes. You have that special teacher who just gives you that extra oomph. I always looked at NASA as a really cool place to go. But, a lot of times, you think, ‘Well, I can't do that.’ Mr. Jaques was really instrumental in that part because he's like, ‘Hey, let's go to Space Camp.’” said Bigelow.

While Bigelow pursued a career with NASA, Auq-uwey and Amos O’John have differing opinions on actually going to space.

“I kinda want to go to space now,” said Amos.

“I'm kind of neutral on that one. I haven't made a decision,” said Auq-uwey.

Danny Jaques plans to organize a group of youth to go to Space Camp next year and every year for the foreseeable future.

“I'm shooting for 50 years. Of course, I'm going to be in my 80s when that occurs, but (I) stay in good shape. I'll be probably doing my last one on a walker. Or maybe even the last Space Camp, we could actually do it on the moon,” said Jaques.

With schools struggling to retain teachers in Ignacio and across Colorado, Danny Jaques’ passion continues to enlighten students about the wonders of space.

Clark Adomaitis is a shared radio reporter for KSUT in Ignacio, Colorado, and KSJD in Cortez, Colorado, for the Voices from the Edge of the Colorado Plateau reporting project. He covers stories that focus on underrepresented voices from the Four Corners region, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes, the Navajo Nation, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ communities, and more.
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