At Kennedy Space Cen­ter, Mars is within our or­bit

Sim­u­la­tors a let vis­i­tors work in zero grav­ity, drive a rover

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Cha­beli Her­rera Staff writer

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.

CHA­BELI HER­RERA/STAFF

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.

CHA­BELI HER­RERA/STAFF

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