At Kennedy Space Center, Mars is within our orbit
Simulators a let visitors work in zero gravity, drive a rover
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Like a scene from “The Martian,” the botany lab in Mars Base 1 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex grows vegetables under the glow of fluorescent purple lights.
But it’s not all potatoes like in the 2015 film. This room can grow anything from cress to tomatoes, and all of the crops are planted and harvested by guests playing astronaut for the day.
The botany room is one of several new features at Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Training Experience Center, a twoyear project designed to simulate astronaut training and work on Mars. The attraction opened in February, but officials gathered last week to officially kick off the opening of the ATX with representatives from its sponsor, aerospace company Lockheed Martin.
The center, inside the Visitor Complex, has two major components: The Astronaut Training Experience that simulates training for a mission to Mars and the Mars base camp, which lets guests try their hand at some of the activities astronauts would perform while on the red planet.
“This additional offering allows partici-
pants go through the training and contend with real, on-the-job challenges that astronauts face,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the Visitor Complex. “They also have the chance to perform real NASA science experiments and contribute to data that will be used in the field.”
On Thursday, students from Stone Middle School in Melbourne and Southwest Middle School in Orlando tried out the simulations. Students strapped up in the microgravity simulator, where, sitting in zerogravity chairs, they pulled themselves along under a metal crane-like structure, opening boxes, moving switches and turning knobs on a “mission” to repair the space station truss.
In the virtual reality room, students put on VR headsets to explore the surface of Mars. Guests also can try a full-motion simulator of a Mars rover and sit at the command center for the mission.
At Mars Base 1, the mission begins with a “transport” to Mars in a simulation room that’s reminiscent of Epcot’s MISSION: Space ride. Once on Mars, there are three exploration rooms: The botany lab; an engineering lab; and the base operations lab.
In the operations lab, visitors will work together to solve a base crisis, and in the engineering lab, they’ll be tasked with programming a team of four robots In the engineering lab, visitors will program a team of four robots to clear dust and debris off solar panels.
If you go
The Astronaut Training Experience Center, for ages 10 and up, is an add-on to the general admission at the Visitor Complex priced at $50 for adults and $40 for children ages 3 to 11, plus tax. It is available for groups of up to 24 at a time, at $30 to $175 for the full five-hour experience. A ride on the microgravity simulator is $30, for instance. The Mars Base camp experience is $150. Two, three- and five-day camp programs are also available.
to clear the dust and debris off solar panels to generate power.
“The thing I really enjoy about it is it’s educational,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager for Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. “There has been a lot of energy that has gone into the educational part of it — and it’s fun. So they are learning about space and science and
engineering and they don’t even know it.”
Lockheed and the space center hope the attractions will drum up interest in careers in the industry, which will open 100,000 new STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — jobs over the next 15 years, she said.
The activities at the Astronaut Training Experience
and Mars Base are tied to an RFID, which will monitor guests’ progress through the simulations, identify where they excel — and tie that to a potential career in the industry, for example. And parents will get a kick out of this: Kids also can film a video log of their experiences, just like Matt Damon’s character in “The Martian,” Mark Whatney.
“This is an exciting time in human spaceflight. We’re building the Orion spacecraft here at the Kennedy Space Center, and it’s my hope that one of the students learning in the Astronaut Training Experience will one day be one of the astronauts that flies Orion to Mars,” Callahan said.
In the microgravity simulator, guests sit in zero-gravity chairs and pull themselves along under a metal crane-like structure, opening boxes, moving switches and turning knobs on a “mission” to repair a space station truss.