Disorientated, the students stumble out, don motorbike helmets swathed in orange cellophane, and crawl into an air-locked science lab.
The Athena Mission has launched.
In what might be the most elaborate space simulation exercise ever undertaken by an Australian school, the aspiring astronauts spent the next 30 hours on ‘Mars’, carrying out various research assignments and sampling procedures with meticulous precision.
Science teacher Terry Payne says his five young charges were as well-equipped for their exploration as any NASA astronaut. Just earning a prized spot on the mission required surviving a rigorous application process that began back in Term 1.
“[Students] took part in a range of activities that were slightly based on what astronauts have to go through anyway, so they did IQ tests, personality tests, scientific tests, guiding a remote-controlled car – that kind of fine motor skills stuff, and that also included a video of why they wanted to be a Martian,” Payne tells Australian Teacher Magazine.
Inspired by Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, and determined to bring the NASA space experience to his own school, the Victorian educator says his “great friend” Google helped him to string together a basic simulation plan.
“I thought ‘OK, Muhammad can’t go to the mountain, but is there a way the mountain can come to Muhammad?’ I thought ‘hold on, we could do this’,” Payne says.
So his squad of five ‘lads’ chosen, Payne and his team got stuck into the specialist training phase.
“They did CPR training, water testing training, how to test soils, how to recognise different rocks … how to take temperatures, blood pressures, pulse rates, so all sorts of things that they would need to do,” he shares.
Leading up to launch day, staff pulled out all stops to make the experience as authentic and thrilling as possible.
“It was very much a collegiate activity, so we had a number of things we needed to prepare: sound, equipment, media training for the boys … it really is a whole school activity.”
Decked out in their ‘spacesuits’, the students entered their specially prepped lab, ready to find out if Mars was indeed able to sustain human life.
“We had a program broken up into 15-minute sections and each of the boys knew exactly what they were doing in the 15 minutes…
“They had no adult interaction as it were, so they were fully responsible for what they did and how they did it,” Payne says.
It may have been a relentless schedule spanning 30 hours, but support was always on hand for those braving the Mars habitat.
“Mission control was next door and we observed them via video,” Payne explains.
“And we were in communication via a Skype messaging system, so they could ask us questions and we could answer back…”
The novelty of the whole exercise really struck a chord with the children.
“I have to say the boys really got into it … they took it quite seriously, and even when they were packing up, they were packing up in their spacesuits,” Payne laughs.