Mars Experience Bus brings virtual reality to Oakland youth

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On September 9, the Mars Experience Bus made its first California stop on its long national tour at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland to share with children a virtual reality experience of the red planet.

The Mars bus stayed on the premises for the weekend, and the Lockheed Martin Center invited the public to enjoy the experience for free. The experience was received with joy by visitors of all ages, as children and parents came down from the bus with smiles throughout the day and children kept asking, “Can I ride again?”

Boarding the bus was an out of world experience. Passengers took their seats on the blue bus benches, the lights dimmed inside the cabin, and somewhere in the darkness, children giggled with anticipation. Slowly, the windows came to life, bright and with a beautiful scenery of a bare Martian rocky desert. Some children yelled out “Yay!” as the bus began its course, mimicking the bumps of a rocky trail as if the bus was actually driving across Mars. A robotic voice is heard over the excited screams: “Welcome to Mars.”

As the bus traveled—in place as the actual bus was stationary—it transformed into a Mars rover and visitors ventured into an exploration without the need of a spaceship suit. The robotic voice told passengers the real-life temperature on the red planet, -96 degrees Fahrenheit, which is later followed by a transmission from an astronaut at the NASA base: “Someone is going to Mars. Will it be you? Together we can build a better tomorrow.”

 The bus was built to work as a gateway for children to explore a new world beyond their dreams. Designed by Framestore, a British visual effects company, the vehicle provides children a “4D” experience. That means that the bus windows transform into the sights children would see on Mars, providing a 3D experience, but these visuals are combined with special effects like wind and bumps that give the children a full sensation of driving across the planet.

Edward Chang and his daughter Sofia, 4, were among the visitors who enjoyed the Mars ride—so much so, that Sofia just had to ride it more than once. She would climb the stairs all by herself with her father following behind. Once on the bus, she would designate a seat for her dad, so she could sit and enjoy the experience alone. The 4-year-old girl’s eyes glowed in the darkness as she attentively watched the sights in the screens move. She would always let out a giggle every time the bus hit a bump or when she could feel the cold breeze of the Martian atmosphere.

“We came to Chabot just to come explore the museum,” said Chang. “We weren’t expecting to see the bus. It was more like an added bonus.”

The Mars Experience Bus is part of Lockheed Martin’s Generation Beyond program. Their goal is to inspire the next generation of innovators, explorers, inventors and pioneers. It also features in-class curriculum and digital resources preparing students to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and NASA’s planned missions to Mars in the 2030s. The target audience for the bus is middle school children as the Lockheed Martin Center staff strongly believe “the world’s first crew to Mars is likely in middle school right now,” stated in their online advertisements for the event.

In order to get children even more excited about the Mars bus, Stephen Frick, a former NASA astronaut and director of operations for the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) at the Lockheed Martin Center, was the spokesperson for the event and stood outside the bus answering questions from visitors.

Children were enthusiastic about having a real-life astronaut on board to share this experience. Lucio Amaral, 5, and his mother Alisa Amaral, approached Frick to ask him questions about space and if it was feasible dream to become an astronaut. Happily smiling, Frick nodded “yes” to the little boy.

 Frick also shared one of his childhood memories; he still remembers being awakened by his mother in the middle of the night on January 31, 1971, to watch mankind land on the moon. It was a night that had sparked a dream many might think is too big for a little boy: becoming an astronaut. Frick has flown on two shuttle missions as recent as 2008 on the Space Shuttle Atlantis before retiring in July 2015.

“The key to being successful—and space is no different—it’s follow your passion,” said Frick. “We’re trying to offer with Generation Beyond a chance for kids to be exposed to STEM education, science topics, engineering topics at an early age to see if it lights a passion in them.”

The Mars Experience Bus will still be in California for one more stop this month close to the bay area at Moffett Field. According to Sydney Owens, a media spokesperson for Lockheed Martin, “We will be at the NASA Ames Visitors Center September 24 and 25. Space is limited, so we are asking people to register for the time they plan to attend, which can be done here.”

The Generation Beyond program will also be launching another project soon, during national Space Week on October 4 to 8. It will be a virtual field trip live from the Lockheed Martin Spacecraft Operations Simulation Center in Littleton, Colorado. Classrooms worldwide are welcome to participate as the tour will be available to stream online.

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