Forget packing for a jaunt to the beach. Kids visiting the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly are setting their sights on a much more ambitious destination: Mars.
At the Astronaut Academy, the latest offering in the TechQuest program at the Northern Virginia offshoot of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, children are using an alternate-reality game to get an idea of what it’s like to be an astronaut.
The game, which debuted in July, asks kids to think about the challenges a journey to our red neighbor (a mere 150 to 300 days each way) might pose, such as how to get adequate exercise and proper nutrition in the tight confines of a spaceship and the best ways to use technology for research and intricate tasks.
The Astronaut Academy will be offered every Saturday and the second Friday of each month, through June. Its parent program, TechQuest, is a four-year series featuring a different game each year to appeal to younger visitors. Astronaut Academy is geared toward upper-elementary and middle-school students, said Shannon Marriott, on-site program coordinator for the game.
After a brief orientation, academy participants choose a role they want to pursue on the space mission. To be mission commander, the participant must complete every activity offered at stations that focus on space travel, working in space, the human body in space and exploring Mars. There are fewer requirements for more specialized roles, such as medical officer or planetary geologist.
Museum staff members called “explainers” — students older than 16 who have received training from the museum’s curators — are positioned at each of the four stations to give information and demonstrations, answer questions and help guide participants through the activities.
“These kids are all incredible,” Marriott said. “They’re really motivated, so they do a lot of the research, and they come up with some of the stories and anecdotes that they tell.”
Brian Chavez of Marietta, Ohio, said his sons Bryson, 11, and Carson, 9, were big fans of the game when they visited the museum last month. Both boys wanted to be mission commanders, and they spent more than two hours completing the activities.
At one station, the boys watched intently as an explainer placed a marshmallow in an airtight container to illustrate the effects of air pressure on the human body. The marshmallow swelled when the air was removed from the chamber, creating a vacuum. It shrank to a small nugget as the air pressure increased.
At the space travel station, an explainer told the boys that they were the right ages to be among the first astronauts on a mission to Mars.
“I heard that’s going to be a one-way ticket,” Bryson said. An explainer assured him that, with NASA in charge of the project, there would be a return flight.
The boys also used a flight simulator to dock a space capsule, which required them to fire thrusters at just the right time to guide the capsule to the station.
After completing all their tasks, the boys attended a brief “graduation ceremony,” where they were presented with medals proclaiming them “certified astronaut candidates.”
Brian Chavez said the game was “a great way to get the people engaged in the process and understanding not just the hows, but the whys — why the spacesuits are the way they are, why it takes so much money to do what they do, all the training that’s involved.”
His wife, Christy, agreed.
“It was all very hands-on, which will hopefully spark them to remember some of these principles,” she said.
Barnes is a freelance writer.