Out and About: The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) has long been known as the gateway to outer space for those seeking to get a close up view of our nation’s space program. Between housing space artifacts and memorabilia, to actual spacecraft like the orbiter Atlantis, as well as hosting viewings of launches from the historic pads, they have always been on the cutting edge of space related tourism.

With the introduction of the all new Astronaut Training Experience (ATX), KSCVC will continue the tradition of offering hands-on interactive exhibits, but with a twist – you actually get to experience training for simulated space missions!

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -simulator

CitySurfing Orlando was invited to a media preview of the new experience, and was given access to some of the simulators to see how this advanced technology will open up an entirely new level of fun, excitement, and learning. The Visitor Complex is already taking reservations for the individual training segments, and will soon be booking the longer multi-hour experience which will include multiple simulators.

We were also given a sneak peek into the all new Mars Base 1 program, which they plan to
have ready for guests by January 2018.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -photo by Kirk Garreans

First up was the ATX… Located in the space that was previously the Angry Birds exhibit, these
new simulators replace the old ATX which was housed offsite of the main KSCVC, which had also contained the old Astronaut Hall of Fame. That building is now being decommissioned and no plans have been made for future use of that building. It offered a family-type experience with some older simulations and training missions, but this new experience is state of the art and much more immersive than the older ones.

The new ATX is based on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) principles of learning, so they are educational, in addition to being collaborative and fun. Each one of the simulations requires teamwork between ground / mission control and the people who are completing the missions. The team members must work together to complete each of the missions, and trainees get to experience both the ground control and hands-on sides of the mission they are completing.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex - Mars rover

One mission is called the Mars Lander / Rover. It is a physical multi-axis simulator that fits 2 people inside the “ride” plus 2 people at mission control. There are 2 actual simulators for this mission, so it accommodates 8 total people at one time.

The mission control crew takes info from the flight crew, and feeds info back to the crew landing on Mars – both to assist them with landing as well as to guide them to specific points on the red planet once they land. The better the teams do at landing properly and achieving the assigned missions, the higher their point score. Mission control teams can see flight information and even a camera image of the crew inside the simulator, all on touch screens that are used as control surfaces.

The flight crew experiences all the shaking and bouncing that you would expect as you land and drive on the rocky desert planet. Depending on which level you choose, the simulator can even rotate the crew upside down! It’s a fun, interactive and challenging process that kids of all ages will definitely enjoy.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex - Walk on Mars

Another mission is named “Walk on Mars”. It uses VR (Virtual Reality) to train a person to do various missions. It has 4 separate stations that require 2 people to operate – one is a mission control technician that gives direction to the person wearing the VR gear, and the VR simulates walking across the surface of Mars as they complete various tasks. There are a variety of missions and as with each of the simulators, it has a certain time limit in which you must complete each mission.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -microgravity simulator

A third mission involves the Microgravity simulator. This also has 4 stations, and each station has a mission control element in addition to the person experiencing “microgravity”.

Participants sit in a very high tech chair that uses air pressure, similar to what you see on an air hockey table, but located underneath the chair itself, causing the chair and occupant to “float” across the floor. They are given a helmet and floated to a section of truss that looks very similar to truss on the International Space Station.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -photo by Kirk Garreans

Then the person in the chair is given specific missions by the person in Mission Control – things like unhooking or connecting cables, moving certain pieces of gear from one place to another, and more. The chairs even have tethers that the participants can use to keep from drifting away from the task at hand! There can also be a third person, possibly one of the ride technicians, to assist with handing out tools or picking up items dropped from the chair… unlike in real space, these items won’t drift away into infinity, fortunately.

There was one other experience that was not being demonstrated, called the Launch Mission – it appears to be the opening / starting simulator for the multi-hour experience, designed to give a flight crew of 6 people the chance to launch on a simulated SLS rocket in the Orion capsule, and will also include a Mission Control crew to help get them into space. It looks like it will also be a fun experience.

The above missions will all be included in the 5 hour ATX program, and is for ages 10 and up. KSCVC also plans on making these individual simulators / experiences available to people who only want to do a few of them.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -Mars screen

As mentioned earlier, the media was also given a peek into the upcoming Mars Base 1 experience. This will be an immersive 7 hour training that simulates traveling to and living on Mars.

It starts with the 4-D Mars Transfer Theater, which simulates the ride up the launch tower, then sitting in a spacecraft during the launch and trip to the red planet. The time frame has been compressed so that they don’t have to sit on a spacecraft for 9 months before arriving on Mars (fortunately!).

Once they land, trainees are taken to the Operations Center, where they begin various training scenarios involving living and working on Mars – including possible systems failures. From there, they will transition to one of 2 labs.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -life sciences lab

One is the Life Sciences Lab, where real plants are being grown and harvested to simulate how vegetation including food might be raised on Mars. This is real science, with data to be collected and analyzed, and shared with NASA, including soil tests, lighting, watering information and more. Trainees can even sample some of the foods being grown!

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -engineering lab

The other lab is the Engineering Lab, where trainees learn to program robots and train them to clean solar panels and maintain the station. There will also be a place for trainees to eat a meal together during this simulated mission.

This Mars Base 1 mission is also for ages 10 and up, and will be available starting January 2018.

Both the ATX and Mars Base 1 programs have Video Log stations where trainees can record
their thoughts about each mission as well as receive reports about their performance in each stage. Participants will have access to them online so they can review these when they get back home.

Programs will range from 30- and 45-minute experiences easily added to a Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex day, to a few hours and will range in price from $30 – $175. Two, three- and five-day camp programs will also be available.

Individuals, families and even corporate or other groups will be able to book these experiences based on their interest level and specific educational needs.

For more information, call 877-313- 2610 or visit kennedyspacecenter.com.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opens daily at 9 a.m. with closing times varying by season. Admission is $50 + tax for adults and $40 + tax for children ages 3 – 11. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers annual passes starting at $75 + tax for adults and $60 + tax for children ages 3 – 11.

The New Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -Astronauts Jon McBride and Bob Springer
Astronauts Jon McBride and Bob Springer

[Photos by Kirk Garreans for CitySurfing Orlando]

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