4 mins read 02 Sep 2021

Where Teachers go to be Spaceward Bound

Inspiring young people to participate in space-learning activities has the potential to lead students into STEM-based careers, particularly related to space. Jonathan Nalder walks us through the Spaceward Bound project - a place where teachers go to be inspired.

Credit: J. Nalder.

No one could forget the sacrifice of the first teacher astronaut Christa McAullife who perished in the Challenger disaster in 1986. She famously said, “If I can get some student interested in science, if I can show members of the general public what’s going on up there in the space program, then my job’s been done.”

In more recent days, it has been the intrepid teachers of the Mars Society’s ‘Spaceward Bound’ program who are continuing Christa’s goal to interest students in the wonders of space. Formed as a partnership between NASA and the Mars Society originally in 2007, this program’s aim is to ‘train K-12 educators in how to engage their students in activities that will inspire careers in the space sciences by taking teachers into the field with scientists'.

The field in question is the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) located near Hanksville, Utah. The MDRS is a research centre (which is closed to public visitations to ensure the facility remains pristine) was developed to simulate an early base on the Red Planet. 

It includes a large cylinder-shaped simulated spacecraft, which serves as the living quarters for the crews while on-site an engineering bay, a greenhouse, a fully-equipped research laboratory and two astronomical observatories. The teachers of the Spaceward Bound program spend 5 days here experiencing what living on the planet Mars might be like.  

The most recent mission was Crew 235 in May 2021 with all reports showing the program continues to meet this goal. Teachers Thomas Quayle and Jen Carver-Hunter reported that “We are grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our lives are changed for the better, and we are all eager to return to our classrooms to share our week of Sim on Mars.”

Several Australians have also completed missions at MDRS, including Mars Society Australia President Dr Jonathan Clarke, Artist Annalea Beattie and Dr Guy Murphy. And, in late 2022, I myself am excited to share that I've been invited to join the final Spaceward Bound experience as the only non-US participant (this will be my second trip to Hanksville after visiting the MDRS in 2017 for the University Rover Challenge). 

Look out for more news on how that mission will impact Australian students as travel restrictions ease and planning ramps up! As Christa McAullife also famously said, “What are we doing here? We’re reaching for the stars.”

The Spaceward Bound facility. Credit: J. Nalder.



Through over 20 years in Education, Jonathan (MEd, BA/ BEd) has seen how life-long learning, digital tools (STEAM, AR/VR, mobile) & ‘spacethinking’ transform lives. Now, as founder of the First Kids on Mars, Space Futures Coach for STEM Punks, an Advance Queensland Digital Champion, SpaceNation activity designer, HundrEd Advisor (Finland) & CoSpaces AR/VR Ambassador, he actively helps leaders & learners shift thinking to embrace the coming fully digital, and ‘off-Earth’ era as their most human selves via tools developed for STEM Punks and the Future Ready Framework (FutureWe.org/framework). 

Recently Jonathan’s work was recognised as part of STEM Punks receiving the global Big Innovation Award 2021. He also presented at the Space Habitat Event in late 2020 with HI-SEAS Commander Dr Michaela Musilova, spoke at the world’s largest Education conference ISTE online about a Dark Skies project, and was recognised by CleverBooks as a Top 50 innovator with Augmented Reality.