Strap in and lift off just like an astronaut
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER - In preparation for liftoff, as an unseen crew slowly hoisted our launch vehicle to a right angle with the ground, a disembodied voice boomed inside the cabin: "10 seconds to launch." This was going to be good.
With clear skies all around, the view out the shuttle's windows 10 stories up was breathtaking. From my now-inverted seat, I craned my neck and saw the peaceful, royal-blue bay just beyond our launchpad; looking the other way I could make out the launch gantry and part of the shuttle's massive rust-colored fuel pods - Roman candles, really - hissing steam, awaiting ignition to catapult us into space.
As the countdown continued - six, five, four - I triple-checked the yellow five-point harness used to strap me to my bucket-like seat. I took off my baseball cap and wedged my BlackBerry securely inside the hip pocket of my jeans, lest it fall off my belt and conk someone. I tried to control my breathing. It wasn't easy.
Three. Two. One. Ignition. The engines roared, my seat rumbled. Liftoff.
A few months ago, when I received an invitation from my college buddy Leland Melvin, an astronaut and shuttle mission specialist, to a VIP viewing of his launch aboard Endeavour, I never thought I, too, would have the chance to literally blast off into space.
Well, sort of.
When technical problems postponed Endeavour's launch for the day, I stopped by the Kennedy Visitors Center and took a ride on its newest exhibit: the Shuttle Launch Experience, a 44,000-square-foot, $60 million interactive simulator ride. Designed in consultation with an amusement park design company and a former shuttle astronaut, the ride is hailed as the next-best thing to sitting next to a mission specialist on an actual space flight.
"It has been quite popular," said Andrea Farmer, press officer for the visitors center. The exhibit, she said, brings a new dimension to the center "because of the interactive nature."
That interaction begins well before participants take their seats in the full-scale mock-up of the shuttle's cargo bay. The visitors center itself seems designed to help people get a hands-on, front-row experience.
The complex includes an
Slightly more than half an hour's drive from Orlando International Airport, the visitors' area seems designed to compete with more familiar amusement parks nearby, such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld, albeit on a smaller scale. A $38 admission fee grants visitors access to nearly all the exhibits, including the Shuttle Launch Experience, and the complex itself is well-stocked with fast-food stands and gift shops.
Unlike the Orlando theme parks, parents and children who come here can't help but learn something about science and space-flight history. As Farmer puts it, visitors can have "an educational experience and have fun at the same time."
And the shuttle launch simulation is the centerpiece of that experience. Inspiration for the ride comes from what Farmer said is "the second-most-asked question: What it's like to launch into space?" (The number-one question "has to do with bodily functions.")
The detailed simulation has impressed NASA astronauts, who give it high marks for authenticity. Rick Searfoss, the astronaut and veteran mission specialist who helped design it, takes that as a great compliment.
Working closely with a team of engineers and designers from BRC Imagination Arts, a California design company specializing in interactive museum exhibits, Searfoss advised them on several matters, from what it feels like when the booster rockets kick in to how clouds look from space. Once the BRC group "got me a lot smarter on the technology" used in the simulation, Searfoss said he helped them fine-tune the ride's hydraulics and special effects, and acted as test pilot for several early prototypes. NASA videos recorded during shuttle launches are projected on screens to add to the realism, and Searfoss supplied some of his own graphics for the project.
The result, he said, is an experience that comes as close to a ride into space as possible for the earthbound. Through motion, special effects, and video projection, Searfoss said, visitors' bodies are fooled into the sensation of space flight.
When he was asked to advise the project shortly after it hit the drawing board, Searfoss said, some at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration complained that the launch simulator could be a distraction from their mission to educate parkgoers, and many complained that "we don't want to get in the game of trying to compete with the rides [at theme parks] in central Florida."
"That's not what we're about," Searfoss said. "What we want to do is share the reality [of a launch] and communicate that to our visitors. It's about communicating as best we can what it's like to do a shuttle launch."
That communication begins during the wait in line as visitors walk up a covered, zig-zagging ramp. Overhead video monitors play a loop of shuttle astronauts describing what they felt ("You're shaking, rattling, rolling, wow - it's an amazing experience!"), saw ("You see this huge fireball in front of you!"), and thought ("You know you're going somewhere, you just hope it's up") as they blasted off.
Forty-four visitors at a time then enter a staging area where former mission commander Charlie Bolden takes on the role of flight director. Appearing on a wall of giant TV monitors, Bolden compares the experience to what astronauts go through just before a launch, throwing in a quick object lesson on the physics of space flight. Bolden, one of several African-American astronauts and a member of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, is a perfect host: His sharp wit and authoritative presence lend authenticity to the ride.
After the tutorial - and a brief visit to the "white room," a duplicate of the chamber where astronauts get a final once-over - a door opens, revealing a row of seats in a replica of the shuttle's cargo bay. It's time.
As the rumble of the rockets shakes our seats and roars through speakers, the view through the windows of the shuttle cockpit ahead is amazing: As the gantry falls away, blue sky transforms into dark space. Bolden, on a smaller monitor inside our craft, guides us through the different stages of the flight.
Seconds into the launch, the main propulsion rockets fall away, the rumbling stops, and our vehicle arcs over into what could only be described as weightlessness.
The grand finale comes moments later. The shuttle bay doors open, revealing a stunning view of earth.
Joseph Williams can be reached at JoWilliams@globe.com.