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Sharing the Shuttle Experience
It's tough to stay on the edge of your seat when you’re lying on your back, but The Shuttle Launch Experience pulls it off.

The Experience delivers what it promises: A simulation of riding a space shuttle into orbit. There's the rumbling sound and shaking seat of the solid rocket boosters igniting, the jolt of the bolts going off to free the shuttle from the launch pad, and finally, a slight weightless feeling upon reaching pretend orbit.

In the extreme-sensation world of attractions, the new shuttle launch simulator at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has to rank near the top.
The Shuttle Launch Experience

Image right: Crowds line up to walk up the gantry leading to the Shuttle Launch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo: KSC/NASA

Of course, it helps that the event the Experience reflects is one of the most exciting activities humans have devised for themselves.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex arranged a storyline that places a crew cabin in the payload bay of one of NASA's space shuttle orbiters. The passengers taking part in the experience ride in the crew cabin. Once in orbit, passengers see the payload bay doors open and look down on Italy from a pretend vantage point more than 100 miles above Earth.

Astronaut Charles Bolden hosts the simulation, translating his own expertise into a palpable excitement for the passengers before they board the crew cabin. A state-of-the-art array of high-definition video screens, more low-frequency speakers, orange lights and even "smoke" from evaporating dry ice add to Bolden's introduction to the shuttle program.

After a "go" from Bolden, who flew the shuttle four times, participants take their places in the crew cabin. A quick check of seat belts and it isn't long before the cabin reclines and the countdown starts. Three monitors give the view from the flight deck, while a set of payload bay doors overhead remind passengers that they are in the rear section of the orbiter.

The Shuttle Launch Experience Image left: The crew cabin of the Shuttle Launch Experience presents a look at what sitting in the back of an orbiter would be like. Photo: KSC/NASA

There isn't much time to ponder the scenery before the main engines ignite and a low rumble kicks in. Just as on the real shuttle, the main engines get six seconds to come up to speed before the solid-fueled boosters light. Inside the crew cabin, this is the moment when the Experience is tested the most. The bass speakers amp up, the seat shakes and passengers feel their cheeks pull back on their face.

All the while, the screens at the front show the conversion from afternoon sun to the night sky as the orbiter speeds out of the atmosphere and over the Atlantic Ocean. Bolden also makes a couple more appearances to tell passengers when they have passed major milestones in the simulation.

The rumble of the solid rocket boosters subsides and the cabin jolts as the orbiter jettisons them. The main engines are still running and the cabin faithfully impersonates the continuing acceleration of the orbiter as it speeds toward 17,500 mph.

Then the engines stop.

Here is another test of the simulator: weightlessness. Passengers have been on their backs or reclined for the launch, so the transition back down imparts the brief sensation of microgravity.

Gasps from passengers accompany the opening of the payload bay doors as Earth is revealed above.

The simulation ends there. In real life, the crew would get on with enough tasks to fill every minute of two weeks in space. Passengers instead get a few minutes to stroll down a walkway showing the 117 missions of the shuttle program.

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center