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Astronaut John Blaha stands inside the Shuttle Launch Experience "crew pod." (BRC/ Delaware North / NASA Kennedy Space Center)

Your Space Shuttle Ride Awaits

A new ride at the Kennedy Space Center is -- sadly -- the closest most of us will come to experiencing the thrill of a shuttle launch.

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It would be great, though not very original, to say that the new shuttle launch simulator at the Florida is an out-of-this-world experience. It also wouldn’t be true.

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Riders are, disappointingly, stranded on planet Earth yet again. But that doesn’t upset the creator of the $60-million Shuttle Launch Experience in the least.

“I don’t want to satisfy the audience, that’s the last thing I want to do. I want to permanently give them a thirst,” said Bob Rogers, the founder and chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, which created the attraction.

So it won’t ruin the suspense to learn that at the end of the five-minute ride, after you’ve felt the flesh on your face bounce against your neck, while your legs still tingle and the vibrations from “launch” still ring in your back, even knowing that you’ve gone exactly nowhere, you remain childishly hopeful that when the doors open you’ll behold something akin to what has been endlessly described but rarely experienced: our blue world floating in a black sky. Instead, you see a mildly fetching but annoying replica of Earth, a cool reminder that real spaceflight remains beyond reach.

The ride is fun, not at all nauseating like Mission: Space at the nearby Disney Epcot Center, but also not likely to win a contest for biggest thrill. “I’d rather ride a roller coaster,” said Alex Salvador, a student from Washington, who climbed aboard the shuttle simulator during a practice run last weekend.

BRC and Delaware North, which operates the visitor center for NASA, took pains to make the Shuttle Launch Experience as realistic as possible. They consulted 27 present and former shuttle astronauts, pressed for state-of-the-art imagery systems and spent generously for special effects, like vibrating floors where guests gather before boarding and fog machines that simulate the steam during liftoff.

There’s nothing fake about the mission commander, either. Veteran astronaut Charlie Bolden appears on a giant video screen to chat up the technical details of the flight with humor ( “You’re going somewhere,” he says. “You’d just better hope it’s up!”) and an occasional note of seriousness. When the shuttle’s main engines throttle up after passing through the point of maximum atmospheric pressure, Bolden reminds the audience that it was at this point of the flight that the space shuttle Challenger was lost in 1986. “This is always a thoughtful moment,” he says.

For the ride itself, visitors sit in 44-seat modules that simulate (imaginary) passenger pods in the shuttle cargo bay. The floor is inclined seven degrees and the seats recline an additional 62.5 degrees so that passengers come close to laying flat on their backs, just as shuttle astronauts do at liftoff. Technical wizardry accounts for other perceptual tricks, such as the sense of increased G-forces during launch and the feeling of weightlessness in space (for spoilsports, it’s done by inflating and deflating seat cushions).

The ride is housed in a seven-story building, specially designed to project a moving star field for the finale: an orbital view of Italy set against the backdrop of space. “This is the most realistic simulation there is,” said former astronaut Rick Searfoss, who served as a primary consultant for the Shuttle Launch Experience.

“There are better rides,” said visitor Scott Eccarius, a South Dakota eye surgeon. “But this is the real deal. This will be as close as we get in our lifetime.”

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