Pack your bags, Katherine – we’re going to Mars!

This past Monday was a holiday for me, so CJ bought tickets for Katherine and I to fly to Mars.  Well, at least fly a simulated mission to Mars, courtesy of the Challenger Center at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

After a briefing about Mars and the supplies that we would need to take, we donned radiation suits (really just light blue vests) and radiation badges (to let us know if we were getting a dangerous dosage of the stuff), and walked into the control room of our spacecraft.  Two of the oldest boys in our group immediately found the computers for the navigation center, sat down and starting pushing buttons.  Our commander, Kathy, asked them very nicely to wait until they were briefed on what they were supposed to.  Commander Kathy then went around the room, and pointed out all of the various stations – navigation, probe assembly, medical, isolation, etc..

Kathy then gave all of the kids (about 8 in all) a choice of which role they’d like to play.  I whispered to Katherine, “What would you like to do?”  She whispered back, “Navigation”.  Unfortunately, the two boys hadn’t vacated the chairs, and they were the first to be polled by Kathy.  They immediately pointed to the computers they were sitting at.  Possession is 9/10 of the law and all.

As Kathy was polling the rest of the kids, I noticed none of them were picking the probe assembly stations (in fact, they pretty much picked whatever station they had walked up to when they first entered the room).  I asked Katherine in a whisper if she’d like to work on the probe, and she said yes.  So, we became the Probe Team.

Each station had a card deck that explained the procedures for that station.  Since we were going to be dealing with sensitive electronics, the probe assembly was to be done in a “clean” room.  We donned white lab coats over our radiation suits, and got to work.  One of the first steps was to seal the room with a sliding glass door.  Our instructions were that we were only allowed to open the door if our probe’s motherboard was covered up.  (I noted with some amusement that Commander Kathy broke that rule a few times to give us information, ask us questions, and so forth).

The probe assembly consisted of connecting various electronic modules to the motherboard and then attaching a test cable to each to verify each was working correctly.  As we were nearing completion, Commander Kathy informed us that we would have the option of sending the probe to either of Mars’ moons – Phobos or Deimos.  Kathy barely got the options out before Katherine blurted out “Deimos! – But either would be fine.”  Deimos it was.

We finished the probe just after entering Martian orbit, and informed our commander.  She came in, inspected our work briefly, and gave us the green light to button it up for launch.  We did so, and the entire crew counted down.  The probe launch was a complete success, sending back some beautiful video of Deimos.

Our ship was then hit by a large solar flare, so we had to make a quick landing, which was also successful.  We gave ourselves another round of applause, and then headed out for the mission debriefing.

Part of that debriefing included an explanation why it was called the “Challenger Learning Center”.  Kathy explained that in 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, taking the lives of all seven of her crew, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.   The Challenger went down after only 73 seconds, so the astronauts really never had the chance to start their mission, let alone complete it.  The families of the Challenger astronauts got together and formed the Challenger Learning Centers as a way for future kids to complete a mission in the astronauts’ honor, and in a way do what they were not able to.

All in all, Katherine and I agreed it was a LOT of fun.  So much so, that Katherine couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the day, and in fact has converted her room into her own spaceship, requiring people to wear radiation suits (old T-Shirts she colored) and radiation badges.


The text reads,


You are entering the airlock.  Please put on a radiation vest and a radiation badge.  Any visitor who has physical diseases must not enter.  Any visitor who is sensitive to sudden or ultraviolet light must not come in.  Thank you for your cooperation!

Oxygen Levels

This is Katherine in her radiation suit and badge.  She’s standing in front of the Oxygen Levels display.  Here are the various levels:

Death Rate!!!!!!!
Code orange!
Code Shartruse
Code Green
Code Neon

Oxygen was reading “Code Neon” that day.  I don’t know about you, but I think I’d have some difficulty distinguishing between codes “Shartruse”, “Green”, and “Neon”.



I love the paper tubing around the door.  We had a few of these lying around after wrapping presents the week before.

Control Panel

Is it just me, or is it a little disturbing having the “Eject” button be the biggest one on the control panel?

A day or so later, she checked out a bunch of books from the library (as is common for her), and several of them were on astronomy.  She’s definitely been bitten by the space exploration bug (one that bit me decades ago), and I just hope I can keep up with her.