The authentic space simulation
The success of the Shuttle Launch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida will be confirmed this March when it scoops Outstanding Attraction Achievement at the annual Thea Awards. As Visitor Complex numbers begin to rocket, Nick Towle talks to the Launch Experience’s creators.
Visitors to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) have been requesting a launch experience for decades. Finally they have one – an “e-ticket” attraction capable of pulling guests from Central Orlando. The $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience (SLE) was unveiled at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, birthplace of American space exploration, on May 25 last year and is now arguably the Visitor Complex’s star attraction.
“Shuttle Launch Experience is an authentic simulation of a real launch,” says KSCVC spokesperson, Andrea Farmer. “Designed under the guidance of NASA and veteran Space Shuttle astronauts, it is the most realistic simulation of launch ever created. This is not a thrill ride.”
The KSCVC is operated on behalf of NASA by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, which developed the attraction alongside BRC Imagination Arts, which originated the concept in the mid-1990s and acted as conceptual designer and writer of the entire project. Over the past two decades, the California design firm has been a partner on many KSCVC projects, including the $38 million Apollo/Saturn V Center. For the Shuttle Launch Experience, it used state-of-the-art technology and special effects to give visitors a cosmic experience they couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
The journey begins as “crew members” head up a gantry-style walkway towards the ominous-looking Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility. As they make their way along the gantry, real-life astronauts set the stage for what is to come by recounting their own experiences of what it’s like to travel in space in mankind’s most complex vehicle.
Entering the heart of Space Shuttle operations, a combination of large-projection and plasma screens spring to life on Shuttle-like robotic arms and four-times flown astronaut and Space Shuttle commander Charlie Bolden delivers a pre-launch briefing.
Bob Rogers, BRC’s founder and CEO, believes that in Bolden he’s found a star: “Charlie and 26 other flown astronauts were interviewed in depth to make sure that even the most minute detail of every element in our presentation was absolutely authentic. During our in-depth research some of the astronauts said true things in very entertaining ways, or offered interesting data points that we thought were just fascinating. Charlie worked with BRC’s creative director, writers and others, rehearsing, polishing and giving his performance his best effort.”
Prepare for lift-off
On entering the Space Shuttle cabin (the attraction includes a total of four payload bays), passengers strap in for launch, assisted again by Bolden. For the next seven minutes, the crew’s 44 passengers see, feel and live the powerful journey as the Shuttle reaches simulated speeds of up to 17,500 mph.
Vibrations and a blaring roar jolt the cabin as passengers feel the main engine firing up. The engine starts then the cabin shakes as the twin solid rocket boosters ignite. The cabin leans backwards as vibration generators engage, causing passengers to sink into their seats. Instead of having the traditional six degrees of motion, this simulator has one degree of motion to move backwards and forwards and tilts backwards nearly 70 degrees, giving guests the feeling they are lying on their backs at launch, just like real astronauts.
Then: “We have booster ignition and lift-off of the Space Shuttle.” The sensations continue as passengers experience Max Q – the zone where huge forces squeeze the Shuttle – then solid rocket booster separation, main engine cut-off and external tank separation. All is quiet as the Space Shuttle orbiter enters outer space and crew members feel almost as if they are floating in a weightless environment. The payload bay doors then open to reveal a breathtaking view of Earth.
After the ascent the passengers unbuckle their seat belts and make their way back to the real world via a spiral ramp. In this post-show area, plaques detail every one of the 100-plus Shuttle missions to date, beneath a fibre-optic star field that covers the walls and ceiling, immersing visitors in the grandeur of the cosmos.
Back on “terra firma” guests exit through the retail shop, and out into Shuttle Plaza, which features a full-size Explorer replica, as well as genuine rocket boosters and an external tank, representing all three components of a Space Shuttle.
The complete experience is around 14 minutes long, from pre-show through to exit, though Rogers reckons in can take nearer 30 to 40 minutes when you add in a few of the queue line videos and the post- show descent through the mission plaques. “The ascent simulation is just one small part of the much bigger adventure,” he says.
SLE is the culmination of three years of development by BRC, KCSVC and attraction experts including simulation fabricators Oceaneering Entertainment Systems, audiovisual and show-control specialists Technomedia Solutions, designer engineers The Wheel Thing, architecture and construction management firm BRPH Companies Inc and general contractor HW Davis Construction.
“We worked closely with NASA to develop the story to be told and held frequent meetings and reviews throughout the development and construction process,” says Farmer. “Former Shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss was our lead consultant on the project to ensure the special effects, like the simulator, chair effects and ascent visuals, accurately depicted a launch.”
For BRC, which produced the story masterplan, all the scripts, visual concepts and the creative design for the lighting, audio, special effects and guest-flow throughout the design process, the “edutainment” brief was tougher than ever.
According to Rogers: “Any project at the Kennedy Space Center must meet the highest standards of rigorous scholarship while at the same time being viable in the most competitive entertainment market on earth – namely Orlando. In order to get visitors to come to Kennedy, they must be convinced to wake up in an Orlando-area hotel, get in their cars and drive for about an hour or so out to the Cape and then pay a full commercial admission to get into the Kennedy Space Center – so it had better develop world-class entertainment. We needed to find what was true yet naturally entertaining within their [the KSC’s] material.”
“KSCVC is real,” highlights Farmer,” with real rockets, real astronauts, and real accomplishments being made in space exploration and discoveries to benefit all of mankind. It is our mission to tell the NASA story and inspire people of all ages to support space exploration.”
Selling the SLE concept to the public was easy, says Rogers: “NASA has one of the world’s most recognised brands. The moment you say this is NASA’s Shuttle Launch Experience you have distinguished it from all other space-launch experiences out there. The NASA brand tells guests this will be authentic. The Shuttle astronauts who helped us with this have said that the result is the most realistic flight simulation of any kind that they have ever ridden in NASA or in the military.”
Although the KSCVC does not release visitor numbers, Farmer will reveal that, “2007 was a successful year and the impact of the opening of Shuttle Launch Experience was measured in increased attendance. We should continue to see increased visitation as we approach the one year anniversary of it opening.” The attraction clearly has an important roll to play in ensuring the KSCVC – which is entirely self-funding and reliant on ticket sales – is a success.
The Thea Awards, presented by the TEA (Themed Entertainment Association), are due to be staged on March 8 at the Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim, California.