Friday, October 9, 2015         


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Say 'yes' to Mars

But first, test your wits, skills and mental strength at Bishop Museum

By Burl Burlingame


In the classic, century-old sci-fi tale, "A Princess of Mars" — being released as a big-budget movie in a few months — the hero, John Carter, escapes Apache Indians in the Old West by falling asleep in a cave, and then he simply wakes up on Mars.

Fiction is always easier than reality. Current estimates of a manned Mars mission postulate that the crew would spend more than three years in space, getting to Mars and getting back. It's not a walk around the block. When you enter the new "Facing Mars" exhibit at Bishop Museum's Castle Memorial Building, you are immediately confronted with a choice: "Would you go to Mars?" Judging by the numbers, three-fourths of Bishop Museum patrons are choosing "YES."

That is, they choose "YES" before knowing what they're in for. Just this week, six Russian cosmonauts emerged from the Mars500 isolation test after spending 520 days on an earthbound "spaceship." It was their second try. On the first, fistfights broke out.

Designed by the Ontario Science Center, "Facing Mars" has the stripped-down, shiny aluminum nuts-and-bolts aesthetic of toy Erector Sets. Don't be put off. The exhibit has plenty of hands-on materials to reinforce the interpretive message, which pretty much boils down to space travel isn't for wimps.

YOU HAVE to be limber to even try out some of these exhibits. Practically the first one requires that the patron lie down a platform to view a fly-by of the Martian valleys through goggles. The simulation is pieced together from Martian orbiter HIRISE images, and gives a fair idea of flying over the rugged landscape, except when the "aircraft" seems to be flying sideways.

There's an inflatable dome shelter that's seriously cool in a kind of retro, '60s sci-fi way, and right in the center is a tiny piece of shergottite, a piece of Mars that fell to Earth as a meteorite.

The big question of life on Mars is addressed by a discussion of primitive microbes, and the visuals are handled by a bubbling tank of primitive cyano-bacteria, which looks like a fish tank gone sour.

There are question-and-answer stations with Mars trivia and photos, a hydroponics garden under hideous purple grow lights and the spin-chair beloved by aerospace doctors to check your nausea threshold. There's also a game involving stop-motion animation that takes a few minutes to figure out. Some of the buttons don't work, but Bishop Museum has helpful docents standing by.

Several of the exhibits involved problem-solving, and they do so in a hands-on way. Visitors:

» Build a solar platform out of junk within a time limit.
» Two people in separate compartments follow technical commands.
» Attempt a kidney operation in weightless conditions while positioned on a lazy Susan (pretty difficult).
» Duck under a platform to attempt to blow sticky dust off a solar bubble, using video game-style controls.

One display explores the curious notion that it's hard to read facial expressions while upside down in zero gravity.

A fairly cool "Walking on Mars" strap-on rig reduces your body weight to the Martian level, which is 38 percent of Earth's gravity. You'll have to change your gait to get around.

On the way out, patrons are asked again whether they'd go to Mars. This time, only about half still want to go. Mars isn't for sissies.

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