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Alan Boyle explores the Mars Curiousity Rover in VR at the Museum of Flight (Photo by GeekWire/Kevin Lisota)
Aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle, explores NASA’s Curiosity rover and its surroundings on Mars in virtual reality at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

I’ve been to Mars to kick the tires on NASA’s Curiosity rover – and you can take that trip as well.

Not in reality, of course, but in virtual reality: The tours of Curiosity’s surroundings near Mount Sharp are being provided courtesy of Seattle’s Museum of Flight during this weekend’s SpaceFest gathering.

There’s a whole program of activities, built on the theme of “Ladies Who Launch.” Speakers include Nathalia Holt, the author of “Rise of the Rocket Girls”; South Korean astronaut Soyeon Yi; women from Boeing, Vulcan Aerospace, SpaceX, Planetary Resources and Blue Origin; and Amy Shira Teitel, who’s the author of “Breaking the Chains of Gravity” and the blogger behind Vintage Space.

The virtual reality tours are sure to be a hot ticket as well. In cooperation with Valve, the VR/gaming company based in Bellevue, Wash., the museum made the Mars experience available during last year’s SpaceFest. Hundreds took turns wearing an HTC Vive headset and pacing carefully around a virtual Red Planet.

“We put 300 people on Mars before NASA did,” exhibit designer Peder Nelson joked.

This year, three stations are being set up, and museumgoers can get time-stamped tickets for a 10-minute taste of virtual reality. In addition to the Mars scene, you can play around with a 3-D virtual painting program and sample other VR goodies.

 

Virtual reality is a hot technology, for museums as well as Mars. National Geographic built an “Experience Mars” exhibit in New York that relies heavily on VR. It’s also offering a set of simple VR games online for Google Cardboard and similar smartphone-based VR viewers. This all ties in with National Geographic’s big “Mars” miniseries. (We’ll have more about that later this month.)

The visitor complex at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida offers guided VR walk-throughs on the Red Planet, facilitated by Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets. This year NASA also unveiled an immersive Red Planet experience called “Mars 2030.”

Closer to home, the Museum of Flight has teamed up with Microsoft to offer VR tours inside the cockpits and compartments of airplanes ranging from the B-17F Flying Fortress to the Boeing 747. Some of the museum’s historic planes are so delicate that VR provides the only way for the public to peek inside.

“Scanning the cockpit of planes like the B-17 is actually preserving the artifact,” Nelson explained.

The airplane tours are designed to be taken sitting down, or at least standing stationary. This weekend’s Mars tours, in contrast, let you click Vive controllers to jump from one spot to another, or walk around within the confines of a roughly 10-by-10-foot area.

 

Because the virtual scene is rendered from imagery collected by Curiosity, the rover itself serves as the focal point of your wanderings. You can sidle right up to the SUV-sized machine and get a close look at the hardware.

Your own body isn’t shown in the VR field of view, so it’s as if you’re a ghost roaming around the Red Planet. I actually did try kicking the rover’s tires, but my unseen foot just flew through empty space.

Tales have been told about how disorienting 3-D VR can be, but I didn’t feel even a smidgen of queasiness as I carefully padded around the simulated surface. If you get close to the boundary of your VR sandbox, a grid of thin green lines pops up to show you just how much farther you can go. (The system is known as Chaperone.)

You have to keep from getting tangled up in the wires leading down your back from the headset to the computer running the VR software, but in this regard, the museum’s guides act as living, breathing (but unseen) chaperones.

When my 10 minutes were up, I didn’t want to come back down to Earth. And you probably won’t, either.

The Museum of Flight’s SpaceFest begins tonight with a four-hour window for virtual reality experiences, from 5 to 9 p.m. VR tours are for ages 10 and up. Free tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery.

SpaceFest continues on Friday and Saturday. VR experiences will be offered from noon to 5 p.m. on Friday, and 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Check out the full schedule on the museum’s website. General admission is $21 for adults, with discounts for seniors, kids, AAA members, Boeing employees, military personnel and veterans.

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