Local business offers up a super ride

ASTRONAUTS OFF TO A VIRTUAL MARS — NASA Astronauts Scott Kelly and Mike Hopkins, in their blue NASA jumpsuits toward the left, were among dignitaries and thousands of people who rode the virtual reality tower-drop “Future Flight — Journey to Mars” in Houston as part of the pre-Super Bowl LI celebrations. The ride was manufactured by A.R.M. USA Inc., based at the Jefferson County Airpark. -- Contributed

WINTERSVILLE — A Jefferson County business was front-and-center in the Super Bowl LI party that the city of Houston has been throwing in the days leading up to today’s big game between the AFC champion New England Patriots and the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

A.R.M. USA Inc., based at the Jefferson County Airpark, an amusement ride manufacturer known around the world for its products, has worked with sponsors, led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to bring a true Houston spacefaring experience to the Super Bowl.

Dubbed “Future Flight — Journey to Mars,” the virtual-reality, fully immersive tower-drop ride brings Houston’s connection to NASA and Mission Control to riders, who are taken on a Mars mission, complete with narration and facts about the future planned flight to Mars. They get the chance to experience a virtual-reality landing on and exploration of the Red Planet.

Mike Gill, A.R.M. president, said his firm was brought together with the Houson Super Bowl LI host committee and worked with Ideas Orlando, a production company from Orlando, Fla., to create an experience for visitors to Houston to enjoy in the days leading up to the game.

“NASA is really excited about the whole project to promote the journey to Mars,” Gill explained. “The plan is in about 15 years to put an astronaut on the surface of Mars. The way they’re talking, someone in the sixth grade now is most likely to be that individual.”

The ride opened on Jan. 27 in the Discovery Green Park in Houston, where visitors can view a display of various space artifacts and attractions and board a Mars Rover bus.

But it’s the ride aboard “Future Flight — Journey to Mars” that has been enjoyed by celebrities, astronauts and visitors of all ages.

“The crowds have been amazing. It’s an open-to-the-public event, free of charge. Visitors register with the NFL on their Funpass and come into the park,” he said.

Gill said Houston is the home of the Johnson Space Center, and the ride fits perfectly with the theme of the host city.

It’s the first virtual reality ride for A.R.M., which put together a new drop tower, worked with the host committee and NASA on the theme and painted it in the colors of NASA’s Orion rocketship.

“It’s our first virtual reality tower, the first drop-tower with a virtual reality experience,” Gill said. During the two-and-a-half-minute journey, riders put on Samsung virtual reality goggles, launch, travel past the moon and head on to Mars. The virtual experience takes the mission to a landing on Mars and gives participants a chance to explore the surface of the planet. Riders also hear narration about space travel to Mars and what the astronauts will experience, what the journey will entail and what they’re seeing on Mars. From there, they’ll virtually blast off, come back to Earth and experience the return to the Earth’s atmosphere — it’s here that the riders are dropped down the tower — before landing on the 50-yard-line of NRG Stadium, home of Super Bowl LI.

Among the dignitaries taking a Mars journey aboard the ride have been members of the staff and players for the Houston Texans and at least two astronauts, Scott Kelly and Mike Hopkins. Kelly is best known for spending a year in space aboard the International Space Station and Hopkins spent about seven months aboard the space station.

A.R.M. has enjoyed national news coverage from the major TV networks for its $750,000 attraction.

After today, the experience could be sold to a buyer or, if no deal is worked out, it will be brought back to Wintersville and converted back to a standard drop-tower ride with a virtual reality option for another customer.