Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSVC) recently opened its new Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) Center, giving the public a really fun and interesting interactive learning opportunity to not only train like an astronaut for Mars missions, but to also simulate what a day living and working on Mars would be like, while also helping with real NASA research along the way.
From floating in microgravity chairs simulating spacewalking activities, to conducting surface missions on Mars in Virtual Reality, strapping in to a full-motion Mars Landing and Rover Simulator, launching on NASA’s Orion Capsule for docking with a Mars Transfer Vehicle or conducting a full day of operations on the Red Planet, the new ATX and Mars Base 1 is well worth spending a couple days at for any space geek or aspiring astronaut, young and old.
And the mission patch-style logo for the ATX Center, as seen in the above photo at the entrance to the Complex, was actually designed by Michael Okuda, who is world–renowned as the longtime lead graphic designer for Star Trek.
“We’re offering something that most people thought they would never get to do in their lifetime,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the KSCVC. “For anyone who has wondered what it would be like to feel like an astronaut, to train like they train, face the challenges and issues they have to work though while under extreme pressure, Astronaut Training Experience and Mars Base 1 is now available to everyone.”
The KSCVC recently invited AmericaSpace to check it out for ourselves, and we were thoroughly impressed!
The ATX Center is actually two distinct programs, and each boasts incredible attention to detail, from a sleek design and realistic signage, to sophisticated technology providing a real sense of authenticity. There’s the astronaut training, where you can actually participate in four different training simulations, and Mars Base 1, which is a 7-hour program where “rookie astronauts” conduct various base operations along with real science experiments and engineering tasks.
Astronaut Training Experience
The Astronaut Training Experience is a 5-hour program to go through all four of the training simulators, and it is set up so nobody is ever just standing around waiting in line; it’s definitely nothing like your local theme park attraction.
Groups of up to 24 can simultaneously work in those four training areas that replicate real astronaut training, attempting the same physical tasks of actual astronauts who will eventually travel to Mars, by working within reproduced environmental scenarios.
And it’s all designed to be done in teams, with a focus on problem solving, communication and collaboration.
- MICROGRAVITY / SPACEWALK TRAINING
Here you will be strapped in to a seat floating on air for 30 minutes to conduct various tasks simulating repair work on a Space Station truss, getting a taste of what spacewalking in microgravity is like. And it’s not as easy as it looks either, which gives a great impression as to the difficulty of really doing it, even requiring you to make use of tethers so you don’t “float away” from the truss, all under the direction of Mission Control.
- MARS SURFACE OPS IN VIRTUAL REALITY + LANDING AND ROVER IN FULL-MOTION SIM
Next you’ll move on to 45 minutes of fun and learning with Mars simulations, starting with some Virtual Reality to conduct various tasks on the Martian surface. With a controller in each hand you’ll transfer cargo, analyze rocks with science instruments, and even dodge a dust storm, all while working together with your mission control team, who guides you along the way.
From there you move on to the full-motion simulator, which actually offers an “easy” or “difficult” simulation to train to land on Mars, and then drive across the rugged terrain to reach the safety of Mars Base.
We of course chose difficult, as the “easy” option does not offer tumbling out of control when you make mistakes. I quickly learned how fun tumbling in a simulator is too, when I failed to deploy a parachute after entry through the upper atmosphere.
You also follow orders from your control team, who is constantly requesting coordinates and status updates, as well as providing directions on where to drive your rover.
- Orion Launch Mission and Mars Transfer Vehicle Docking
There’s also a combined Mission Control and Orion Capsule launch and docking simulation, where six people are strapped into Orion while six more manage the mission Launch Control. Each person has a touch screen computer that provides a mission time-line, information as to what they should be monitoring, warnings as to what decisions will be needed to succeed, status of work being performed by others in the group, and a script of calls to make on the communications system.
And all participants work together to solve anomalies and emergencies facing the mission.
“The big idea behind the simulation is to provide an opportunity for participants to feel the excitement of being a part of a launch team while practicing critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills,” says KSCVC.
- Perhaps one of the greatest things about all this too, is the fact that you don’t have to purchase the entire program. You can purchase individual elements of it instead, if you’re short on time or have more of an interest in one experience over another.
The full ATX 5-hour program costs $175 (suitable for ages 10 and older).
The combined Mars VR and full-motion simulator costs $40 and runs about 45 minutes.
The microgravity spacewalk training costs $30 and runs about 30 minutes.
MARS BASE 1
The other half of the new ATX Center is a separate program, Mars Base 1, and will require a full day of your attention to complete. It’s a crash course for a day living and working on the Red Planet, but there’s so much to keep you busy that one day will fly by before you know it!
The base is made up of three different stations; an Operations Center, an Engineering Lab and a Life Sciences Lab, where participants are assigned real life challenges that require analytic thinking, communication and collaboration.
It all starts in a multi-purpose galley / briefing room, complete with a “window” view looking out at the Martian terrain from base camp. From here, you proceed into the base HUB, where each of the three stations come together, before working in each station one-at-a-time.
In the Engineering Lab, participants design and test a program that allows a team of robots to efficiently clear Mars dust from a photovoltaic panel, in order to restore maximum solar power to the base.
But one of the coolest things is that people will also partner with scientists working on NASA’s Food Production in the Life Sciences Lab, where participants plant, harvest, and analyze various greens as they gather data in a series of controlled experiments taking place in the Botany Lab.
It’s not a tourist attraction, nor is it a science classroom, but a real working laboratory.
KSCVC has spent the last two years developing the Botany Lab in full cooperation with NASA, using some of the same indoor farming techniques and testing some of the same crops, but also branching out into things NASA has not tested yet.
And the veggies are all edible too, packed with strong flavors (I was given a few samples) because astronauts in space lose their sense of taste, so they prefer food with stronger flavors. Some of the plants being grown have even grown from seeds flown in space on the shuttle previously (they are growing some peppers which grew from seeds onboard Challenger right now actually).
Data collected by participants in the Botany Lab will really help NASA scientists in their studies, and eventually may help actually determine which plants will be grown on Mars one day.
Then there’s the Operations Center, which is divided into four “pods” with three work stations each. Participants work collaboratively to solve various issues to keep Mars Base 1 operating. For example, one scenario involves a crash of an uncrewed supply vehicle, which calls on you to communicate with Earth and other outposts about the crash, download satellite imagery and prepare maps for the rovers out in the field to go take care of it.
When the task is done, you move on to the next! And at the end your team is given a score (and an individual score too), and a determination of what team was the most efficient, so it’s great for you competitive types!
The 7-hour Mars Base 1 program costs $150 (ages 10 and older). Anyone under 18 will require a paying adult with them.
“The new ATX Center is the most interactive and technologically advanced experience at KSC Visitor Complex ,” added Protze. “ATX and Mars Base 1 bring the future of space exploration to life. Guests looking to get as close to Mars as possible without actually becoming an astronaut will be able to now have that opportunity.”
– AmericaSpace would like to thank Kenna Pell and Dee Maynard for a real eye-opening experience and thorough tour of the new ATX and Mars Base 1, as well as the whole KSC Visitor Complex for their generous hospitality (and a good time too).