Savvy NASA Is Giving Super Bowl Fans a Glimpse of Mars at Discovery Green

A rendering of the "Future Flight" simulator by the Super Bowl Host Committee.
A rendering of the "Future Flight" simulator by the Super Bowl Host Committee. Super Bowl Host Committee
NASA is taking advantage of the fact that the Super Bowl is right here in Houston by setting up a ride that blasts people to Mars and then hurtles them back to terra firma, right here in Houston.

Well, via a simulation, that is.

NASA partnered with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee to put together "Future Flight," a Six Flags AstroWorld-reminiscent tower drop ride equipped with a virtual reality simulation that lets people pretend they're on a journey to the Red Planet.

The participants are actually strapped to chairs, sporting pairs of heavy goggles and being lifted up a six-story tower constructed in the middle of downtown's Discovery Green, just before being summarily dropped, but they're seeing Mars through their virtual reality headsets.

"Future Flight" is the centerpiece of the NASA pavilion set up for Super Bowl Live, a free festival at Discovery Green.

It's a savvy move on NASA's part. After all, there's probably no better way to remind people that the Johnson Space Center, home of human spaceflight, still exists right here in Houston than by setting up a tower designed to look a little bit like a launch pad gantry and painted orange and white, the same colors as the Space Launch System.

Plus, the ride is a way to get the general public interested in NASA's big plan to go to Mars in the 2030s. (Considering that it's still unclear how President Donald Trump views either the Mars plans or NASA in general, the federal space agency can arguably use all the good publicity it can get, as we've noted.)

In addition to the Mars ride, the pavilion has an Orion ocean recovery test capsule, an actual RS-25 rocket engine, the type of engine that was used in space shuttle launches, a prototype planetary rover and a full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to launch in 2018, according to a NASA release.

But while the displays sound nifty and all, "Future Flight" is the real tent-pole attraction here.

"You're about to blow past humanity's boundaries," a guide says through virtual reality headsets that riders wear as they are cranked up the side of a 64-foot-tall tower. "Your destination: Mars." (NASA also has a non-drop tower version of the ride for those who want to see it without having to, you know, really feel it.) You rocket away from the planet, whizzing by the International Space Station as you head for Mars.

"You are strapped into the Orion spacecraft, atop NASA's Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, accelerating to 24,000 mph on a journey that will take you farther than anyone has ever dared from our home world," the virtual reality narrator intones.

As they approach the top of the tower, the participants "land" on Mars. For a few seconds, as they hang suspended in the air, the riders can look around and "see" the planet's surface through the virtual reality headsets.

Then it's time to go back to Earth. (This is where the fact that you've been lifted way up in the air really comes into play.) As you fall to the ground on the tower drop ride, the simulation is having you free-fall back to Earth. Specifically, in a neat tie-in with the Super Bowl, you plummet all the way back to a touchdown on the 50-yard line of NRG Stadium.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray