Fly Off to Mars at Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Training Experience

Astronaut Training Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex rekindled my boyhood dreams of going to space. The newest exhibit at America’s space port, uses immersive technology to train us tourists like astronauts going to Mars. As Kennedy Space Center currently works on the Orion Spacecraft that will one day travel to Mars, Astronaut Training Experience gives families a peek behind the curtain as to what the future crew will go through in order to pilot the ship. Recently, the Kenendy Space Center hosted my 17 year old daughter Evie and I, and asked if we had the “right stuff” to get through the Astronaut Training Experience. Continue reading for a first-hand account of our stellar experience.

Astronaut Training Experience

Entrance to the Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center, photo by Dave Parfitt

Our arrival at Kennedy Space Center was promptly at 0800 hours, and we were introduced to a team of recruits from all over the world – Chile, Poland, Russia, and… well… Florida. The quartermaster quickly outfitted us with gear (ATX t-shirt), and we gathered for coffee and snacks in the mess hall. We got to know each other and were divided into two teams. Our first assignment – launch control center.

Astronaut Training Experience

Inspiring sites at Kennedy Space Center, photo by Dave Parfitt

Half of the team made up Mission Control while the other half formed the Capsule Crew. Evie and I were assigned to the capsule crew: Evie, Commander and myself, Flight Engineer. The countdown was on – 3… 2… 1… liftoff. Mission Control jettisoned us off to Mars. Our capsule shimmied and shook off the launch pad and lurched during the simulated rocket separation. Each person had a specific role to fulfill in order for us to dock with the International Space Station, and success was certainly not guaranteed. Fortunately, our Capsule Crew working in concert with Mission Control reached the space station successfully where we rested up prior to our long-distance flight to Mars.

Astronaut Training Experience

“Ladies and gentlemen, your flight commander today is 17 year old Evie Parfitt,” photo by Dave Parfitt

After the mission launch simulation, it was time for a series of exercises to prepare for our duties in space and on Mars. These high-tech training experiences utilize the same NASA equipment as astronaut trainees and we could compare our progress with NASA interns as well as Hall Of Fame astronauts. First up, a little bit of microgravity in the ATX spacewalk training.

A large part of astronaut training is learning to collaborate with your team. During the spacewalk, one person sat in the microgravity chair, another directed them remotely through a headset, and a third handed tools to the spacewalker. After completion, the group rotated so everyone experienced each different part of the exercise. The microgravity chair floated over the ground like a puck on an air hockey table, and the astronaut recruit maneuvered under a truss fixing various components (without floating off into space). Evie and I teamed up with another competitive New Yorker, and we whizzed through the exercise faster than any team. Our New York teammate was determined to show her husband that she was the more qualified recruit.

Astronaut Training Experience

Evie trying to space walk in microgravity during the astronaut training experience at Kennedy Space Center, photo by Dave Parfitt

Next up, a walk on Mars. One team member strapped on a sophisticated virtual reality headset, grabbed two handheld controllers, and was guided remotely through a task on “Mars.” The experience was so immersive, you couldn’t help but jump and startle to what happened in front of your eyes. Rocks moved, doors opened, and dust storms blinded you – if NASA could have somehow changed our perceived weight perception, you would have really believed you were walking on the Red Planet.

The final station was the Mars Lander/Rover simulator. “Easy or hard?” The instructor asked us. “You flip upside down 4-5 times on the hard setting” she said, and without hesitation, Evie exclaimed “HARD!” We were tasked with landing on the surface of Mars, and then driving in the Rover to Mars Base 1. We came in hard on the landing and tumbled like a wind-blown grocery bag across the surface. The Rover driving didn’t go much better as we ended up with a shattered windshield. All-and-all, not our best showing of the training stations.

Astronaut Training Experience

One of the two, 2-person Mars Lander/Rover simulators at Kennedy Space Center’s astronaut training experience, photo by Dave Parfitt

Following the individual training exercises we gathered for a de-briefing and informational session about the International Space Station. All of the guides and instructors were incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about space, and gladly answered any and all of our questions. It was a highly educational experience filled with realistic science and engineering applications that seamlessly blended virtual reality with physical experiences.

After our day of training, we ate, drank, and relaxed just like those original astronauts during the space race. We headed to the historic Cocoa Beach Pier, built in 1962, and offering views of Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle launches, and soon… those astronauts heading to Mars.

Cocoa Beach Pier

Drinks and sunset at Cocoa Beach Pier following a long day of astronaut training, photo by Dave Parfitt

The Astronaut Training Experience is located within the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, but is separate from the regular admission and tour prices. The 5-hour Astronaut Training Program is offered on select days and costs $175/person. The minimum age is 10 years old, and those 10-17 require a paying, participating adult to accompany them. You do not need to purchase admission to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for this experience. It’s a great half-day activity for those that have already toured Kennedy Space Center, and we ended up spending multiple days at the complex (1 for the regular tour and 1 for the Astronaut Training Experience). The Astronaut Training Experience would also make for a fantastic excursion for cruises docking at Port Canaveral.

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.