Space travel and exploration is a lot closer and more believable for 11 Utah youths who spent last week at Space Camp at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The youths - from fourth grade through the ninth grade and from schools in Salt Lake and Utah counties - left Utah Feb. 19 and returned Friday.Jon Lindberg, American Fork, a ninth-grader at Pleasant Grove Junior High School and group leader for the 11 aspiring astronauts, said he loved the trip and can't wait to get back to school so he can tell his friends all about it.

"I was the mission payload specialist aboard the space shuttle. Of course, the trip into space we took was only simulated, but it sure was great," Jon said.

He wants to be an astrophysicist when he grows up, he said, and he wants to return to Space Camp.

Jon told his father, Bryan, that another highlight was sitting in a special chair, suspended by springs and cords from the ceiling, "that gave me the feeling of one-sixth gravity. It was just like being on the moon."

Paul Jerome, a sixth-grader at Dixon Middle School in Provo, told his parents he had a wonderful time. "I was a little disappointed that I wasn't the mission commander, but everybody wanted to be that, and we couldn't all be the boss."

He missed being aboard the simulated space shuttle but enjoyed his job as part of the ground control crew, helping to launch and land the shuttle.

Paul, who said he wants to be a space shuttle pilot when he grows up, will tell members of the Young Astronauts Class at his school next week all about his week at Space Camp.

All 11 youths had a variety of adventures, according to Fred Olsen, a sixth-grade teacher at Sunset View Elementary School, Provo, who arranged the tour but did not accompany the students.

"The center has a unique space museum - the largest and most extensive museum of its kind in the world. The center also lets visitors try on space suits, sit inside space capsules on simulated rides into space and has a special water tank where youths can wear scuba gear and experience weightlessness."

About 300 youths visit Space Camp every week, Olsen said. "During each day, the youths undergo simulated training for a space trip."

He said the youths are divided into groups of about a dozen and learn to work together as a team, just as if they were scheduled to fly a mission. "The culmination of their week's stay is a simulated space trip aboard a full size mock-up of a shuttle."

With voices coming over their communications systems, the youths simulate operating the shuttle's controls. "The youths are given problems to solve and are monitored by a simulated ground crew while they are in the shuttle. It's very realistic and a great way to learn about science and space first hand."

Other Utah students who made the trip to Space Camp last week are Brian Christensen and Lenny Kerby, Provo; brothers Spencer and Mark Seals, Salt Lake City; Preston Thorne, Sandy; brothers Forrest and Jared Baker, Murray; Joanna Jones, Linden; and Sarah Hoyal, Highland.

Olsen said he has visited Space Camp and plans to go again. He is arranging for two more youth tours at Space Camp, one in October and another next March.

Anyone interested in visiting Space Camp can learn more about the weeklong tours by contacting Olsen at his school, 374-4950, or at his home, 756-9525.

He said a weeklong tour costs about $800 and includes air fare and room and board at the Marshall Space Flight Center.