More than two dozen fifth-graders eyed their screens as the Mars Transfer Vehicle glided toward the red planet's surface.
The craft was guided by data logged by a crew of 10- and 11-year-olds. The spacecraft's communications data officer, Grayson Soper, barked out the mission's progress.
"We are preparing for Mars orbit," he said, keying a microphone at his terminal.
A moment later: "We have achieved Mars orbit."
Alarms sounded and lights flashed, but crew members answered the problem quickly.
The craft kept descending, the parachutes deployed. A five-second countdown ended with
"Touchdown," the communications data officer announced.
"We have landed on Mars. Repeat. We have landed on Mars."
The spine-tingling simulation took place under the curious eye of Miss Tennessee 2015 Hannah Robison who was on hand Tuesday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Challenger STEM Learning Center to observe the exercise and voice her support for science, technology, engineering and math study and careers.
Students split roles in the simulation, one group acting as a crew already on the red planet and the other group acting as a crew heading to Mars to relieve them.
"I'm so jealous," Robison laughed. "I didn't have things like this in fifth grade."
Robison, a 21-year-old chemistry major at the University of Tennessee at Martin, is on a technology mission that led her to Chattanooga twice in as many weeks.
Tuesday was Robison's first visit to the center at UTC.
"Last week I got to go to Tech Town here in Chattanooga, and this week I got to come here to the center. We're getting to go to Mars," Robison said. "This is awesome. STEM-based projects are my favorite."
The students participating in the mission on Tuesday were from Harding Academy, a private school in Nashville that has visited the center for the past seven years running, according to fifth-grade teacher Melissa Ferri. In June, Ferri attended adult Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., and she's excited that some of the school's students are following suit.
Robison, since being crowned in June, has launched STEM projects all over Tennessee as a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam's office. She was watching the Mars crew's probe team, Mary Haley and Marshall Greene.
"They're building the probe that they're going to send to Mars," Robison explained.
The Challenger Center's top brass applauded Robison's support and students' enthusiasm.
"It's a joy to watch them and to see them have an opportunity to become aware of careers in STEM," said Dr. June Scobee Rodgers, founding chairman of the Challenger Center in Washington, D.C. She was present on Tuesday for Robison's visit.
Challenger Center director Perry Storey said the center and STEM efforts across the state are lucky to have Robison and Rodgers as supporters and role models.
"Any time we can bring kids into contact with people of leadership, like June Scobee Rodgers, who is so key to our mission, and also like Hannah, who is a future leader in education, demonstrates — especially to young ladies — the opportunities that are out there," Storey said.
That message isn't lost on Francesca Denison, the communications data officer on the Mars-based half of the crew.
"It's been really fun," the 10-year-old said. Francesca has set her sights on a lofty career.
"I would like to do something with NASA," she said, just as another alarm sent crew members scurrying once again.
Francesca turned back to her station and confidently went back to work.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.