Red Alert

The child lies down on a simple board, and his whole family watches as he begins to gently tilt — headfirst — toward the ground. All eyes dart to the television monitors that show a close-up of the kid's face, which slowly but obviously takes on the puffy look that is symptomatic of living outside the bounds of Earth's gravity.

As the kid's family bubbles with laughter, Great Lakes Science Center director of creative productions Dante Centuori knows he has a hit on his hands. But the simple exhibit also makes a compelling point: Our bodies are built for Earth. So what happens when we push them during long space missions, specifically the three-year round trip required for a Mars mission.

"It has the feel of real science fiction," Centuori explains. "It's not just an exhibit about being on Mars. It's about what you need to do to get to Mars."

Opening Jan. 29, Facing Mars features 28 hands-on exhibits that provide kids (and their eager parents) a look at the physical challenges tied to leaving the comfy confines of our home planet. The tilting table that simulates space face is one of them. Another straps visitors into a harness so they can experience what it's like to walk — or rather, bound around — on Mars, where gravity is one-third of what it is here.

But the exhibit isn't just a taste of Space Camp. Facing Mars also details the difficult philosophical and emotional questions astronauts would encounter during the long trip to Mars. Great Lakes Science Center president and CEO Linda Abraham-Silver says she can't wait to show people that human element.

"Could you handle a three-year road trip with five other people?" she asks. "Who would you choose, and who wouldn't you choose?"

As visitors enter the exhibit, they'll be asked if they would go to Mars. Abraham-Silver says she believes most will say yes. "On the way out, we're going to ask them again," she adds. "I think there might be a change of heart when you see the real challenges involved in this kind of planetary exploration."

And while Centuori knows people will be wowed by the physiological and psychology components of the exhibit, he hopes visitors spend a few moments admiring one of the purely physical ones: a hunk of Mars rock the size of a matchbox car that made its way to Earth as a meteorite and was found in the Sahara Desert.

"It's not the big exhibit," Centuori says. "But to me, it kind of says what it's all about: This is a piece of Mars, right here. When that sinks in, I think that's really impressive."

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