Houston, we have a problem.
For one thing, I'm about to board the newest multimillion-dollar launch vehicle at Kennedy Space Center without matching socks, much less a space suit.
Not that my astronaut guides seem to mind. They usher me amiably up to the launch capsule over a series of TV screens along the gantry. Space veterans such as John Young and Winston Scott share anecdotes about their own shuttle launches: the endless training, the thrill of anticipation, the feeling of an "800-pound gorilla sitting on your chest" as the boosters propel you past Mach 22.
I am not wild about meeting this gorilla, nor have I had the training to do so.
Luckily, I'm in good company. The woman next to me is wearing flip-flops.
In the buildup, at least, the Shuttle Launch Experience lives up to its name. The folks at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex are adamant about that name, mind you -- it's an "experience," or a "simulator," if you want to get technical. Anything but a "ride" -- any undertaking affiliated with NASA must maintain an air of dignity, after all. But you also couldn't blame any tourist attraction in Florida for distancing itself from Disney or Epcot, and KSC has more reason than most: If Epcot's Mission: Space ride is a cartoon, the Shuttle Launch Experience aims to be the documentary.
The Visitor Complex became a public attraction in 1967, two years before Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind and four years before the Magic Kingdom opened its gates. Since then, the complex has mostly been a glorified museum to past space missions. Attractions such as Imax movies and a robot-probe showcase were added to their launching-pad bus tours over the years, but with the exception of the occasional hands-on children's show, the complex has been preaching the wonders of space travel to the converted. Exhibits were educational but rarely immersive.
But here, as in so many flashy Florida byways, tourist dollars are the lifeblood. The complex may honor NASA, but it does not share its funding.
Enter the Shuttle Launch Experience, a 44,000-square-foot simulator that aims to re-create the feeling of a space shot in real time, from the launch pad to orbit. KSC has plenty riding on the simulator, with $60 million and the expertise of several astronauts coming together to create what former shuttle commander Rick Searfoss calls "the most realistic simulation of a shuttle launch there is."
Will we rise to the test?
If I am to take the quote literally, this is not good news. I am in the pre-launch briefing area, where Hall of Fame astronaut Charlie Bolden prepares us for our journey on three gigantic video screens. His speech is jovial, animated and informative to a fault.
"You're going somewhere," says Bolden, holding one of the shuttle's massive solid rocket boosters, "You'd just better hope it's up."
A few warnings of impending doom later, my fellow space jockeys and I pile into the 44-seat crew cabin. No complicated harnesses or restricting safety gear here -- just a simple seat belt. An attendant double-checks them for us, closes the doors, and suddenly the capsule gets a little more claustrophobic. Roomy by roller-coaster standards, the cabin is still designed to fit inside a real shuttle, where space is at a premium.
Our only contact with the world outside is a monitor facing us, meant to serve as a windshield on the front of the shuttle. Bolden appears again in a small window, wishes us luck, and the capsule tilts back until all we see is the nose of the shuttle and the great blue yonder.
Countdown begins. At just before six seconds, the main engines fire up, and we feel a low rumble. The capsule pitches forward slightly and then back upright in what Bolden refers to as the "twang." It is nothing compared to the jolt we get as the speakers blare "3, 2, 1. . ." and the rocket boosters ignite. Off we go, with shaking seats and scattered whoops from the crowd.
Everything is synchronized to a T, with speakers blaring sound effects and Mission Control updates in time with the cabin's rumbles. For a capsule that actually remains relatively stationary after the initial tilt, the simulator does a decent job of conveying the sensation of G-forces, using a combination of subtle seat-cushion mechanics and good old-fashioned gravity. Still, my fears about training are largely unfounded: Far from a threat to my lunch, the vibrations might make for a good massage if I weren't being told that I was in danger of being crushed like a tin can by air resistance.
A look at the 'blue planet'
Shortly after the solid rocket boosters separate with a thump, alarms are raised along with our tensions. We had been warned about the simulation supervisor's malfunction exercises. Not to spoil the surprise, but my crew and I weathered the test with resolve. (Translation: We sat there and waited for things to work themselves out.)
One more external tank separation, and we are out of the blue and into the black of Earth orbit. The cabin lurches forward. All goes quiet. (This is perhaps the nicest trick of the experience, as our quick tilt toward the screen hangs us out of our seats slightly, creating the illusion of weightlessness.) Bay doors open above us, and here is the payoff: the boot of Italy passing by as our blue-haloed planet rotates in space above us.
Hopping out of the simulator, my Earth legs come back in no time. A spiral walkway down from the experience honors the missions of past shuttles and offers another view of the planet in the form of a globe spiraling away at the bottom of the ramp.
It's a definite sense of history, coupled with the muted rush of the past five minutes. It may not be the tilt-a-whirl at the county fair, but the technology here aims at something loftier. After years of honoring the space program's history, the Visitor Complex is doing what its big brothers at NASA always have: looking forward.
Other attractions at kennedy space center
Departing daily from the Visitor Complex, buses take viewers through landmarks such as the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the International Space Station Center and the LC shuttle-launching pads. Reserve your spot in the "NASA Up Close" and " Cape Canaveral: Then and Now" tours for a closer look at the launch pads and the history of the complex (additional $21 adults, $15 ages 3-11, for reserved tours).
Imax Space Films
See astronaut footage come to life in two back-to-back Imax theaters, with films such as Space Station 3D and the new Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D, narrated by Tom Hanks.
Sit in for a Q & A session with the best and brightest of NASA's space corps, scheduled throughout the day. Astronauts such as John Glenn, Story Musgrave and Jim Lovell have graced the stage since the program began. For a closer brush with fame, reserve your seats for "Lunch with an Astronaut" once daily (additional $22.99 adults, $15.99 ages 3-11, for lunch encounter).
Mad Mission to Mars
Kids become astronauts-in-training at this live-action show that incorporates 3D animation and wind effects for an interactive trip through the cosmos.
See behemoth relics such as the 223-foot Saturn 1-B in the renovated Rocket Garden. Walk the gantry to the Apollo II mission while the kids crawl inside a real Mercury capsule.
Astronaut Training Experience
A full KSC tour is included in this all-day package, along with a stint in the rotating multi-axis trainer and a gravity chair that replicates the low gravity of a moon walk. Reservations required (cost is $250 for a single person; family and corporate packages available; includes meal, tour and admission to Visitor Complex.)
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