The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY PA­TRICK CON­NOLLY Or­lando Sen­tinel

If you’ve ever won­dered what the process of be­com­ing an astronaut is like, Kennedy Space Cen­ter Vis­i­tor Com­plex on Mer­ritt Is­land, Fla., now has an ex­pe­ri­ence that puts vis­i­tors in the shoes of a space ex­plorer in train­ing.

The cen­ter’s Astronaut Train­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence, or ATX for short, fea­tures four dif­fer­ent sim­u­la­tions, one of which in­volves mi­cro­grav­ity sim­u­la­tion and an­other vir­tual re­al­ity. The com­mon thread is that they all re­quire teamwork and good com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Dee May­nard, man­ager of ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams at Kennedy Space Cen­ter Vis­i­tor Com­plex, said the ex­pe­ri­ence was de­signed to keep vis­i­tors en­gaged the whole time.

“When we were de­sign­ing this, one of our pri­mary con­cerns was that we wanted peo­ple to be hav­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence and not wait­ing around,” May­nard said. “Also, astronaut train­ing is very much a team ef­fort.”

Al­though as­tro­nauts go through thou­sands of hours of train­ing be­fore tak­ing off for space, this train­ing does in­clude some com­po­nents that re­sem­ble real NASA train­ing.

One sim­u­la­tion helps vis­i­tors learn what it takes to launch NASA’s Space Launch Sys­tem, or SLS, rocket. Six peo­ple step into the role of launch con­trol and com­mu­ni­cate with six oth­ers who be­come the Orion cap­sule crew.

Ama­teur as­tro­nauts take turns read­ing and re­lay­ing instructio­ns and sets of data from both sides. In mis­sion con­trol, vis­i­tors step into roles in­clud­ing flight di­rec­tor and space­craft sys­tems of­fi­cer. In­side the cap­sule, peo­ple try their hand at jobs such as flight en­gi­neer, com­man­der and MTV tran­sit pi­lot. If there’s a break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the mis­sion could fail.

Across the room, the arms of a truss as­sem­bly stretch out above chairs that re­sem­ble the kind of zero grav­ity chair your un­cle might have on his back porch. With the flip of a switch, the chairs hover across a fric­tion­less floor, giv­ing as­tro­nauts-in­train­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence that some­what re­sem­bles the no grav­ity en­vi­ron­ment of space.

While strapped into the chairs, vis­i­tors wear a hel­met with a cam­era and mi­cro­phone to talk with a part­ner at a com­puter. Work­ing to­gether, the part­ners com­mu­ni­cate to fix bro­ken wires and mod­ules on the space sta­tion arms.

This part of the ex­pe­ri­ence also of­fers vis­i­tors a chance to learn about the lo­gis­tics of space through de­mon­stra­tions about sleep­ing, us­ing the toi­let and work­ing in space.

Two dif­fer­ent sim­u­la­tions help par­tic­i­pants get a glimpse of what life on Mars might look like.

For the “land and drive on Mars” sim­u­la­tor, two brave in­di­vid­u­als en­ter a tight cap­sule that ei­ther rocks gen­tly or spins upside down, de­pend­ing on the level of in­ten­sity. They, too, com­mu­ni­cate with a part­ner back at a com­puter, who can give them the in­for­ma­tion they need to stop the spin­ning. Or, as a cruel prank, they can leave their part­ners’ stom­achs to churn and let the cap­sule keep spin­ning in­def­i­nitely.

The “walk on Mars” sim­u­la­tor lets one part­ner play the role of a Mar­tian astronaut col­lect­ing rock sam­ples by us­ing a vir­tual re­al­ity head­set and hand­held con­trollers. Like the other sim­u­la­tors, the trainee back at the com­puter gives instructio­ns to the per­son on Mars about which di­rec­tion to head in and what to pick up, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, a sand­storm will roll in and force you to work ex­tra quickly. In one task, the Mars Rover needs at­tend­ing to and the part­ner in the VR head­set needs to flip switches in the proper or­der to get things go­ing again.

Vis­i­tors wish­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence all the sim­u­la­tions should al­lo­cate at least half a day – the full ATX takes five hours and costs $175 per per­son. Astronaut train­ing ses­sions are avail­able be­tween five and 13 days per month. De­pend­ing on the time of year, morn­ing ses­sions start at 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. and af­ter­noon ses­sions at 4:30 p.m, and some dates do not have a morn­ing ses­sion.

Se­lect dates al­low for guests to sign up for in­di­vid­ual parts of the train­ing at a re­duced cost and time com­mit­ment.

Vis­i­tors es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in the sci­ence of space can also travel to Mars Base 1, a pro­gram that takes stu­dents to the Red Planet for a day of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and ro­bot­ics.

The base is geared to­ward school field trips and young STEM en­thu­si­asts, but the gen­eral public is also in­vited to par­tic­i­pate on se­lect dates for $150 per per­son.

Be­gin­ning at 9:30 a.m. and over the course of five to seven hours, ama­teur Mar­tians work with plants in the Botany Lab to col­lect data, pro­gram ro­bots to clear de­bris from so­lar pan­els and man­age the Base Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter.

Re­gard­less of your in­ter­est in or ex­per­tise in space, Kennedy Space Cen­ter Vis­i­tor Com­plex has im­mer­sive pro­grams geared to­ward friends and fam­ily of all ages.

“I think ev­ery­body who comes to an ex­pe­ri­ence like this has a lit­tle bit of kid in­side them,” May­nard said. “They’re do­ing some­thing that re­ally you can’t do any­where else in the world. I’ve seen adults get just as ex­cited as the chil­dren.”


The mi­cro­grav­ity sim­u­la­tor is one of four sim­u­la­tions in the Astronaut Train­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence at Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

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