08 February 2010

Rocket Ride

Most of us are never going to get the chance to go into space, much less get near something that is capable of taking us there. Even if you are tight with the Rutan brothers your chances of going to the edge of space are pretty slim. There is, however, an alternative that will at least give you the sensation of going into space. No, it is not a rollercoaster or anything like that. It is located at an amusement park, of sorts: Epcot Center at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

There is a "ride" there called Mission: SPACE. It is a very convincing simulation of a space shuttle launch -- at least the first couple of minutes of the launch. I read a review about the ride before I actually experienced it. The review was written by a shuttle astronaut, and his description of the accuracy of the experience was the most interesting part for me.

There were six of us the day we visited Epcot and we made a beeline for the Mission: SPACE ride. The first thing we saw was a bit confusing: the signs talked about a "spinning" and a "no spinning" option. Wife was leery about things involving spinning since she inherited her mother's tendency for motion sickness. She and our daughter decided they would go the "no spinning" route. Son-in-law, the granddaughters, and I decided to GO FOR IT. Spinning it would be, whatever that was.

I kind of had a notion what "spinning" was going to be just from the astronaut's review of the ride. I was right. After you walk through the inevitable Disney maze just to get to the ride you are confronted with a three-seat cylinder with an instrument panel of sorts you sit in front of. The two granddaughters and I entered a cylinder and pulled the horse collar restraints down over our heads; then the door of the cylinder slid shut. There is a video display in front of you and Gary Sinise is there explaining to you that this is a simulator run and what will happen. So far, so good. A minute or so into the experience your video shows some clamshell doors opening and your space craft starts being erected to a vertical position. You feel a bit of lurching and rumbling, which turns out to be the initial spin-up of the centrifuge you are sitting in. As your eyes tell you that the space craft if now vertical, the centrifuge has you spun up to one transverse 'g,' that is, you feel as if you are lying on your back. On your video monitor you see blue sky and clouds; there is even a sea gull flying overhead. All of this is background to a countdown to launch.  The visual and kinetic senses reinforce each other.

At engine start there is more lurching and rumbling; the centrifuge is beginning to spin up to as much as 2.4 g. The video shows you that your solid rocket boosters have fired and you can see that you are rising through the clouds. The g-forces quickly increase. Being an old aviator, I can vouch for the authenticity of the sensation. You are called on to perform some simple tasks such as flipping switches and pushing buttons. It turns out to be a challenge under the force of 2+ transverse 'g's. Your video shows you quickly leaving the atmosphere and heading for the Moon. Once the boost phase is over you are reduced to one-g acceleration; it briefly feels as if you are in micro-gravity.  After that it gets a bit hokey, but by the end of the five minute, or so, ride you've gone from standing still on Earth to coming to a screeching halt on Mars.

We did the ride several times and the sensation didn't get old; and Wife did the ride under 'g' forces and didn't get sick. I did notice that some people really do experience motion sickness on the ride: One time we had to walk around a puddle of vomit upon leaving.

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