Houston Super Bowl Host Committee officials took the media for a ride Wednesday, and from the raucous reaction emanating from Future Flight: Journey to Mars, it's bound to be a screaming success.
With astronauts Scott Kelly and Mike Hopkins on board for the inaugural flight, along with host committee honchos Ric Campo and Sallie Sargent, the tower ride got off to a roaring start, although, while waiting for what seemed like an interminable time until takeoff, Kelly cracked, "This is just like a real space flight — hurry up and wait."
The ride, a signature attraction of the nine-day Super Bowl LIVE fan festival in Discovery Green that begins Saturday, takes a dozen people, all wearing virtual reality goggles, for a simulated trip to Mars and back, with a lift-off from Kennedy Space Center, past the moon and International Space Station through a starry sky to touchdown on the planet Mars.
The ride rises to 90 feet into the air — equivalent to the height of a 9-story building — and ends with a stomach-churning free fall onto the 50-yard line at NRG Stadium just before the game pitting the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons is set to begin.
The ride, which is just over two minutes and includes actual footage from the red planet, had the astronauts touting the experience. "I was really surprised," Kelly said. "It's a little scary."
"The ride was fantastic. It's really quite a rush when you come back down to earth," Hopkins agreed. "It gives you that sense of excitement. And maybe one day that is going to inspire the next generation of astronauts and maybe they'll walk on Mars someday."
Members of the media, who were among the first to ride the new attraction, had a different reaction — blood-curling screams as the ride dropped to the ground.
Campo, board chairman of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, said he and other officials were looking for an attraction that touted Houston as Space City. "This is the first drop ride with VR and sound in America," he said. "Theme parks are going to start doing this across the country. It's really cool that you can create and stimulate something new and really cool, and that's what NASA's about, right?"
The ride is free, but expect long lines as it can only accommodate about 150 people an hour. Officials said chances to snag a ride will probably be better this weekend or early next week before Super Bowl crowds grow bigger, and coming earlier in the day is always better than later (see hours below). Participants must fill out a waiver form, which they can do beforehand by downloading the Houston Super Bowl LI app.
If you don't want to ride but still want the virtual reality experience without the 9-story drop, you can view the experience through VR goggles, and the wait will likely be shorter.
Also, exhibits showcasing NASA and the aerospace industry's progress on the journey to Mars, scientific research aboard the International Space Station and the agency’s next great space telescope are scattered around Discovery Green and the surrounding area. NASA's Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket engines as well as replicas of the Curiosity rover and James Webb Space Telescope set to launch in 2018 are among the prized artifacts on display.
Future Flight is open during Super Bowl LIVE hours: 10 am - 11 pm January 28, 10 am - 9 pm January 29, 3 - 9 pm January 30 and 31, 3 - 11 pm February 1 and 2, 10 am - 11 pm February 3 and 4, 10 am - 3 pm February 5.