Space Travel on a Shoestring

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Artistic concept of the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator ride at Kennedy Space Center.

The $20 million rides aboard the Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station may be fully booked through 2009, but the budget traveler still has options. Opening Memorial Day weekend is NASA's own space shuttle simulator at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Designed for the Holiday Inn crowd, the space tourist can get a decent sense of lift-off and flight to low-earth orbit for $38 ($28 for children), less than the price of a typical theme park admission.

"I think for the general public it's as close as you can get down here on the planet," said former NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss, one of several shuttle jockeys who helped tweak the simulator's sound, sights and motion.

In technical rehearsals this week, the Shuttle Launch Experience begins with riders climbing an authentic-looking gantry into a white "clean room" to board a model of a crew pod in the shuttle's payload bay. A real 8.5 min. vertical launch into orbit reaching a speed of 17,500 mph is compressed into a 5 min. jowl-rattling experience, including the key launch milestones of solid rocket-booster separation, main engine cut off and the external tank separation.

The trip ends in the stillness of faux orbit where the payload bays open to reveal a state-of-the-art graphic of Earth in a stunning view very few people have ever seen firsthand. Air sickness bags are conspicuously absent. Unlike an astronaut-training simulator or other virtual reality systems, which allow multiple degrees of stomach-turning motion — forward and backward, up and down, side to side, pitch, roll and yaw — this simulator only allows for pitch. But in clever combination with a powerful Buttkicker audio system, which lets riders feel sound, strong vibrations, timed seat compressions and video cues, the rider is tricked into feeling acceleration, G-forces and weightlessness.

This is NASA's first realistic simulator ride, developed over three years for $60 million as part of the agency's mission of sharing, along with commercial applications of space-driven research, the wonder of extra-terrestrial exploration and discovery. NASA contributed to the development of Walt Disney World's Mission:SPACE thrill ride, which opened in 2003. But Mission:SPACE is very different, spinning riders in a centrifuge to expose guests to G-forces and a momentary feeling of weightlessness in what is supposed to be a futuristic trip to Mars.

While real space travel for real astronauts is being threatened by NASA budget cuts, the wallet-challenged traveler can rest assured that the Shuttle Launch Experience is cleared to go. The ride, along with all other attractions at the visitor center, is funded through ticket, food and souvenir sales.