- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Colonization of the fourth planet from the sun generally has been relegated to the science-fiction genre, popularized in such works as Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” or Robert A. Heinlein’s “Red Planet” or films such as “Total Recall” or the miserable “Mission to Mars.”

In recent years, however, exploring Mars has become reality with the Pathfinder mission. The next step, landing a human crew on the planet’s surface, may be as few as 20 years away, according to Dan Goldin, a former NASA administrator.

Nexterra Inc. has taken on the task of putting a man on Mars by providing an online simulation of a space mission that may inform generations of the importance of science as well as demonstrate the feasibility of the endeavor.

Explore Mars Now

Site address: www.exploremarsnow.org

Creator: Nexterra Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Boulder, Colo., maintains the site. Founded in 2001, Nexterra works on issues of design and education related to human exploration of space. The site was created by five design and computing professionals together with several students from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Creator quotable: “We created this site to inspire people to learn about the science and technology of human exploration of Mars. We designed the site to show that such exploration is not some pie-in-the-sky, futuristic abstraction. It is something we can do now,” says Ray McCall, executive director of Nexterra. “To make our point, we created a vision of a Mars base that is so detailed and so realistic that it looks like it already exists. We believe that design can be an effective teaching tool when it is experienced interactively.”

Word from the Webwise: The fictional, 21/2-year Diomedes mission will send a crew of six to the surface of Mars to search for life in 2017. This Webby Award-nominated site takes visitors on a realistic walk-through of the 3-D model of a laboratory and living quarters developed for the first humans who land on the planet.

An introductory multimedia sequence whets the adventurers’ appetites as it highlights the landscape of the planet known for its atmosphere of mainly carbon dioxide. The camera pans across the planet’s surface, eventually focusing on an astronaut walking to the main building.

The Mars habitat then uses current concepts from engineers and designers to feature more than 100 detailed images and animations representing the main base, a greenhouse, a pressurized vehicle and robot rovers that can be examined by clicking buttons, hot spots and arrows located at the bottom of every scene.

Acting like a rudimentary CD-ROM game, the colorful visuals reveal massive amounts of text-based information presented in a Terminator-eye’s view through a target that locks on locations and shows side-scrolling data. After learning about the atmosphere, soil and rocks of Mars, visitors can click their way to the habitat, shaped like a giant Apollo capsule, where crew members will spend 18 months.

Once inside, places to check out include the medical area, with its advanced imaging diagnostic displays; the laboratory, which offers an argon-gas-filled chamber to study newly acquired samples; and the wardroom, which looks as if it has been ripped out of a “Star Trek” set with its massive media wall and titanium skeleton chairs containing pneumatic cushions.

Additionally, visitors get access to the exterior of the growth experiment module used to test how Earth species might adapt to living on Mars, as well as a look at the long-legged robots used to explore rough terrain and the crew rover used to roam over 250 miles of the planet’s surface.

Ease of use: The site works with all browsers except the newest version of the Netscape. The only plug-in needed is Flash 5 (or a later version of Flash) to enjoy the simple, Myst-like presentation.

Don’t miss: Besides a page covering scientific facts about the planet and a detailed mission briefing, Nexterra has included blueprints of the habitat’s exterior, available as an 11-by-17-inch printout to color or scrutinize carefully.

Elements on the horizon: The next additions to the site will be aimed at high-bandwidth users and will make extensive use of programmed interaction and 3-D graphics.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a complete Mars-exploration theme park on the Web. In this park, visitors would be able to explore the Red Planet on foot or by Mars car or Mars plane. Educational opportunities would be offered for all age groups, from very young children all the way up to seniors,” Mr. McCall says.

Comprehension level: Designed primarily for high school students and adults, the site also has been appealing to 8- to 12-year-olds.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the science or technology fan? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).


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