A Trip to Mars in Just 5 Minutes: Udvar-Hazy’s New Mars Experience Brings the Red Planet to Loudoun

Could a kid sitting in a Loudoun middle school classroom eventually be the first human to set foot on Mars?

The folks at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center and Lockheed Martin are betting on it. And to give young people a taste of the future, they’ve created the new Mars Experience, a virtual tour of the red planet.

“The first person that will go to Mars is likely in middle school right now,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator at the Air and Space Museum. “We hope this experience helps inspire young people to want to reach new worlds.”

The Mars Experience takes the form of an unassuming bus parked in front of Udvar-Hazy. But inside, the vehicle is a high-tech augmented reality tour that gives visitors an idea of what a visit to Mars would be like in just five minutes.

The Mars Experience program is run by Barb Gruber, supervisor of education programming for National Air and Space Museum, along with her team of teen and young adult explainers who introduce visitors to the experience.

“The visuals on it are very good. The science that they talk about on the Experience is very good,” Gruber said. “It does tie in all that we’ve learned about Mars. It’s meant to be that hook that gets kids excited and gets them thinking ‘I could be the first person on Mars.’”

The relatively short tour is packed with cool augmented reality images created by the team that did effects for the 2015 film “The Martian.” As visitors hop on the bus, they get a virtual tour with audio feedback through the landscape of Mars as its rocky terrain rolls by, experiencing a dust storm and the steep drop in temperature to negative 98 degrees when night falls and driving by an imagined human colony.

“The vehicle you’re in is giving you this feedback about the conditions on the planet,” Gruber said. “It incorporates what we know about Mars in a way that kind of immerses you in the experience.”

The installation was created by Lockheed Martin as part of its Generation Beyond STEM education program. After dozens of school visits around the country with Lockheed, the company donated the bus to the Air and Space Museum. For now, the experience is open to the public on weekends, and school groups will soon be able to organize tours at the museum.Gruber’s team also is planning several days of Mars-related activities at the museum on Black Friday and the weekend following Thanksgiving in conjunction with the scheduled landing of the InSight robotic Mars lander on Monday, Nov. 26.

But part of Gruber’s mission is to get the bus rolling out to Loudoun schools by the end of this year. The crew’s first visit is slated for Dec. 20 at Sterling Middle School as part of the school’s annual STEM day.

For Gruber, a former Loudoun County Public Schools chemistry teacher and technology resource administrator who was hired by Air and Space after serving as the LCPS teacher in residence at Udvar-Hazy, the cooperation between the museum and LCPS is a natural fit.

“There’s just that partnership that works so well between the schools and the museum,” Gruber said.

And for the high school and college student explainers hired by the museum to help guide visitors through the experience and answer questions afterward, it’s a chance to help share their love of history, science and technology.

Last Sunday, Air and Space explainers Mario Escobar and Maryam Sinanovic, both students at George Mason University, were on hand to facilitate visits to the bus on its second weekend at Udvar-Hazy.

Escobar is a physics major with a concentration in astrophysics whose dream is a job with NASA, while Sinanovic is a global affairs major who is intrigued by the public policy tie-ins and implications of space exploration.

“It’s a perfect experience to go in and experience yourself instead of just reading a textbook. For a visual learner like me, it’s really cool to see how things can change in a matter of minutes on Mars,” Sinanovic said.

Escobar gives kudos to Lockheed for packing so much of the available data on Mars into a five-minute introduction.

“They did a great job of using all the information available to show what a realistic experience would be like on Mars,” he said.

And while the experience is designed for upper elementary and middle school students, it was a hit with 4-year-old Luke Koeppen and his cousin Hans, 5, who climbed on board last Sunday before heading into the museum for pre-Halloween trick-or-treating. “It was cool being on Mars,” said Luke, who was dressed as Marshall from Paw Patrol. And Hans, who was dressed as an astronaut, said he’s already made his career choice and is pretty sure he’ll be one of the first people on Mars.

The experience also got a thumbs up from Luke’s dad, Matt Koeppen, an eighth grade physical science teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools, who said the programming meshes perfectly with Virginia’s middle school science curriculum.

“The most impressive thing was the forward-looking thinking. … It was a good stratified view of what could happen on Mars in just a few minutes,” Koeppen said. “I think the students I teach would really enjoy this. … A Mars experience like this would be unforgettable for them.”

The Mars Experience is currently open to the public on weekends from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway in Chantilly. No tickets or advance reservations are required. For more information about the Mars Experience and to find out about reserving a school visit, go to airandspace.si.edu.

An elementary school robotics team from Prince William County was the first school group to visit Udvar-Hazy Center’s new Mars Experience installation. Visits for Loudoun elementary and middle schoolers will start later this year. For now, the bus is open to the public on weekends at the museum.
[Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum]

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