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Virtual Reality-Equipped School Bus Lets Students Tour Mars

What would it feel like to take a bus tour across the surface of Mars? 

Some middle school students will have the chance to find out, as engineers at Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defense contracting company, have built a school bus that simulates the experience (minus the extreme heat and issues with oxygen). The window panes on the bus are actually high-definition screens that show the Red Planet's terrain. "It's really cool because with the bus movement, what you see on screen moves as well," said Krista Alestock, spokeswoman for the company. "When the bus turns left it's almost like you're turning left on the surface of Mars." 

The company worked with the graphics team from the movie The Martian to create the experience, she said. 

Lockheed Martin, which has partnered with NASA on Mars exploration for decades, has a vested interest in getting students excited about STEM, and Mars in particular. "We are building the Orion spacecraft that NASA is going to use to send a crew to Mars," said Alestock. "That's happening right now. We know that the first crew to Mars that will be on the Orion spacecraft is either in high school or middle school right now." 

NASA has set a goal to send humans to the planet in the 2030s. 

The bus debuted at the USA Science and Engineering festival in Washington this past April. It will be making stops around the country, including in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas this fall and spring, according to the company, though the exact timeline and schedule are yet to be determined. The company is "hoping to reach hundreds of kids in each location," Alestock said.

Free Space Resources for Teachers

In addition to the Mars Experience bus, Lockheed Martin worked with Discovery Education to create free digital tools for teachers to use in their classrooms. The lessons and activities about space exploration are geared toward 6th through 8th grade students. 

Students can also enter a video challenge, in which they design a "habitat module" (the place where astronauts live, work, and store supplies) for the Orion mission and present it with a short video. The contest, which has a $10,000 prize for first place, launched earlier this week.

And Oct. 4, the company will host a virtual field trip from its Spacecraft Operations Simulation Center in Littleton, Colo, during which students can talk to STEM professionals about how they got involved in space exploration. 

Mars has captured the public's attention recently, in part because of the release of the widely acclaimed book The Martian, which was turned into an a Academy Award-nominated film last year. Andy Weir, the author of the sci-fi novel, told me in an interview that the book has plenty of application in STEM classrooms, and has been used by teachers across the country. 


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