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Shuttle Launch Experience
The Shuttle Launch Experience is housed in a hangar-like building at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (credit: J. Foust)

Review: Shuttle Launch Experience

Odds are that you’re not going to get to fly on the Space Shuttle, unless you’re part of that elite group who has already flown on a mission or are a member of the astronaut corps today (and even that’s no guarantee, given the number of astronauts and the number of remaining missions.) That leaves the rest of us, from the hardcore space aficionado to the layman with a casual interest in spaceflight, wondering what it’s like to fly into space on the shuttle. The launch experience has been recounted in everything from books to IMAX documentaries, but now it can be simulated to some degree with an amusement-park-like ride, the Shuttle Launch Experience.

The Shuttle Launch Experience opened last May at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a site that has evolved over the years into something resembling the theme parks that dominate the central Florida tourist landscape (right down to the admission fee: with tax, just over $40 for an adult.) The ride is housed inside a six-story building “architecturally consistent with Space Shuttle facilities at the Kennedy Space Center”, in the words of the ride’s promotional materials; that is, it looks something like a hangar. After stowing purses, cameras, and other items in lockers outside the building, riders ascend a winding blue gantry-like walkway to enter the building and the ride.

A bigger question for the ride’s long-term future is how it will stand the test of time. With the shuttle set for retirement by the end of 2010, will people still be interested in simulating a shuttle launch after that?

In perhaps an unintended degree of verisimilitude to the actual shuttle launch experience, a lot of the time on the Shuttle Launch Experience ride is spent waiting. As you wait on the gantry, monitors show a video where former astronauts describe what it was like for them to fly on the shuttle. Once inside, there’s a preflight briefing video starring former astronaut Charles Bolden, as he describes what the shuttle flight will be like. There’s one final set of videos as people line up to enter the ride itself. On a Saturday morning in mid-March the lines were relatively short—it’s clear the ride is designed for much larger volumes of people than were there that day—but even then the whole buildup was a little tedious, particularly for those who are already familiar with the shuttle.

Finally, you enter the ride, taking a seat and strapping yourself in. (The rather limited backstory for the ride is that you’re flying in a special passenger module in the shuttle’s cargo bay. There’s no explanation for why you’re going to space or when you’ll come back; this is, after all, only the Shuttle Launch Experience.) Once strapped in, the module rotates into a vertical position—hence the requirement before entering the ride to put items in lockers before entering—and a condensed version of a launch follows. As a video narrated by Bolden plays, rides experience the sensations of acceleration and vibration as the shuttle lifts off and climbs towards orbit. (The ride tries to interject a bit of additional drama into the experience with a minor emergency during ascent, but that does little to heighten the experience since there’s nothing riders can do about it and the problem is resolved within moments.) Once the shuttle reaches orbit, the cabin rotates back to its original position, which can give you a momentary, illusory sensation of weightlessness. And, like any good theme park ride, you exit by passing through a gift shop.

It’s difficult for anyone who has not flown in space to gauge the realism of the Shuttle Launch Experience, since you can’t compare it to actually launching on a shuttle mission. As you exit the ride and enter the gift shop, there is a large sign featuring the signatures of a few dozen ex-astronauts who have flown the ride and evidently found it satisfactory. Perhaps a bigger question for the ride’s long-term future is how it will stand the test of time. With the shuttle set for retirement by the end of 2010, will people still be interested in simulating a shuttle launch after that? Will the ride look anachronistic in a near future where NASA is developing and flying Constellation and people are actually flying into space on suborbital space tourism vehicles? That’s hard to say today, but if you’re curious about what it would be like to fly on a shuttle, the Shuttle Launch Experience is probably your best chance to find out.