It's Cool, but Is It Out of This World?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

RESEARCH QUESTION: On May 25, Florida's Kennedy Space Center opened its mega-hyped, $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience. Six years in the making and the collective brainchild of astronauts, attractions-industry experts and NASA itself, the ride made us wonder: With Disney's big-thrill scream machines a short drive away in Orlando, can this ride live up to the hype? And is there any chance this simulated experience can induce the same awe as seeing a real shuttle launch?

METHODOLOGY: The night before our Monday visit, we hit the visitor complex's Web site ( to buy tickets. Just two days had passed since space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from Cape Canaveral, and we wanted to avoid lingering crowds. We thought better of buying ahead of time, however, after learning we'd have to fork out an additional $3 to print out the block of tickets at home or -- gasp -- $6 to pick them up at will call. When we arrived at 10 a.m., we were pleased to find a parking spot (no charge) close to the entrance, and nary a line in sight.

RESULTS: According to Daniel LeBlanc, the chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, all the research about what brings people to the facility kept leading back to the fact that most want to see a live launch -- a rare and notoriously finicky event. Although planning for the simulation began in 2001, a post-9/11 lull in attendance stalled the process, and ground was finally broken in 2005.

The important thing to know about the Shuttle Launch Experience is that it's a ride based in reality -- not a thrill ride. And while it lacks the centrifugal spinning and asteroid encounters of Disney's Mission: Space attraction (not to mention the motion-sickness moments), the reality-based slant of the ride makes it interesting in its own right.

We deposited our purse in the lockers next to the entrance (be sure to have a quarter handy) and were happy to see this message: "Wait time from this point is approximately 0 minutes." Turns out a zero-minute wait lasts about 25 minutes; that's how long it took until we were actually strapped into the ride and ready for liftoff (the ride itself lasts five minutes).

Before reaching that point, we moved through two interior waiting rooms (the better to keep as many as possible out of the Florida heat). In the first, several minutes of video coverage boosted by rumbling sound effects and simulated smoke detailed the launch process (with veteran astronaut Charlie Bolden acting as your friendly trainer).

Then it was off to the four simulators (each fits 44 riders in seven rows) for the final safety briefing. A few visitors opted out at this point -- deciding they'd rather watch the launch than live it -- and retired to a room next to the simulator.

The gray-domed payload bay simulator was like the inside of a giant X-ray tube, and the seats faced a screen that displayed the launchpad view. Bolden guided us through the experience as hydraulics pitched the seats back nearly 70 degrees (astronauts launch on their backs in a similar position) and our legs slid down to give the impression we were supine and looking up at the launch tower.

Then a low rumbling and full-body shaking simulated main-engine ignition. The shaking effect is created by something called a ButtKicker; basically, it's a large subwoofer tucked under each seat. Air bladders in the seat backs deflated to simulate G-forces, and the screen ticked off the miles and seconds as we hurtled toward 17,500 mph. The separation of the external tanks preceded the coolest part of the ride: the moment meant to simulate weightlessness. Pitching forward in our seats 20 degrees, we could almost believe we were floating, and the feeling was all the more enjoyable because it wasn't accompanied by any of that belly-bubbling queasiness we've experienced on Mission: Space.

Soon the payload doors slid open, and starry skies and a view of the Earth were revealed on a fancy rear-projection screen. After riding twice, we decided that a seat in the middle or back rows is best for getting the most complete sky view.

CONCLUSION: The Shuttle Launch Experience is definitely worth checking out if you're spending the day at the Kennedy Space Center. But if your main mission is an intense thrill ride and heavy adrenaline rush, think twice about making the trek out to the cape. And if you ask us, seeing a live shuttle launch from whatever the distance remains infinitely more impressive.

-- Terry Ward

The Kennedy Space Center is on Merritt Island, less than an hour east from most Orlando area attractions. The Shuttle Launch Experience is included with regular admission ($38 per person plus tax; $28 plus tax for kids ages 3-11; ticket good for two days). Info: 321-449-4444,

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