They Have Liftoff: A Shuttle Experience for Tourists

Pat Duggins experiences the Shuttle Launch Experience. i i

hide captionPat Duggins (right) experiences the Shuttle Launch Experience.

Pat Duggins experiences the Shuttle Launch Experience.

Pat Duggins (center front) experiences the Shuttle Launch Experience.

The Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility i i

hide captionThe Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility at Kennedy Space Center is boxy and gray. In other words, it smacks of NASA.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
The Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility

The Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility at Kennedy Space Center is boxy and gray. In other words, it smacks of NASA.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Today the touristy part of Florida's Kennedy Space Center launches its first, state-of-the-art space ride, called the Shuttle Launch Experience. It simulates the feeling of being strapped inside the shuttle, and rocketed into space.

Pat Duggins, of member station WMFE in Orlando, has covered actual shuttle launches for years. But he's never done this.

About an hour's drive east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center has been welcoming tourists for decades. But, unlike Walt Disney World, the space center has never had a theme-park-like ride before.

With the new, $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience, NASA was aiming to simulate what really happens during a shuttle blastoff.

That sense of reality begins with the exterior of the Launch Experience building. It's boxy and gray. In other words, it smacks of NASA. Video screens along the path into the attraction feature retired NASA astronauts talking about their experiences in space.

Once the doors into one of the four shuttle simulators swing open, visitors enter into what looks like a small movie theater made to resemble the inside of a space shuttle's payload bay. On NASA's actual shuttles, this area is reserved for cargo, such as parts of the International Space Station. For the purpose of the Launch Experience attraction, there are 44 seats, each equipped with a safety belt. Three video screens focus your attention forward.

When astronauts climb aboard the shuttle for actual launches, their flight seats are bolted to what corresponds to the "wall" of the spacecraft, which will be the "floor" during touchdown, since the vehicle blasts off straight up and then lands like a glider. Once visitors to the Shuttle Launch Experience are buckled in, a similar effect is achieved when the simulator tips backward until everyone is flat on their backs, like the astronauts.

After a brief countdown, lighting and sound effects take over for the blastoff and the five-minute trip to space. There's slight shaking and rumbling at six seconds before launch, when the shuttle's main engines typically ignite. Then, there's a lot of shaking and rumbling when the twin rocket boosters fire and the simulated liftoff begins.

Once the attraction's speedometer reaches 17,500 miles per hour, the main engines shut down and the simulator tilts forward so the audience strains forward against their seat belts. This is designed to give the feeling of that first orbit of the Earth that astronauts experience as weightlessness sets in.

The cargo bay doors then open to reveal a dramatic view of Earth with music swelling in the background.

After having covered the space program for 20 years, all I can think about is that if the audience were really in the payload bay in orbit, we'd all be blown out into space. But this is, after all, a ride, although we're not supposed to call it that. The adventure ends here and the guests depart on a path, not coincidentally, leading to the gift shop.

Pat Duggins is senior news analyst for member station WMFE in Orlando. His book about NASA, published by University Press of Florida, is due out this fall.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: