Tossed in Space
Strap yourself into a centrifuge and blast off to Mars
By Brad Lemley
Walt Disney World/Epcot
In 1969, when I was 14 years old, I rode the Flight to the Moon attraction at Disneyland (owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also owns this magazine). I was underwhelmed. Among other tepid effects, a pump sucked air out of the riders’ seat cushions with an audible hiss—a ruse intended to simulate the inertial force that mashes astronauts back into their chairs during liftoff as their bodies resist the rocket’s forward thrust. A deflating whoopee cushion, I surmised, didn’t quite capture the drama of shooting into space. What it did was deflate the dream I had idly nursed of becoming an astronaut. If I could have experienced something remotely as thrilling as real spaceflight, I might have resolved to undergo the requisite grueling training. In those days, the option to sample a journey into space did not exist.
Now, to a surprising extent, it does. The new Mission: Space ride at Walt Disney World, outside Orlando, Florida, is an ambitious $150-million-plus effort to bring interplanetary travel to the masses. Although the “mission” lasts just four minutes, it was created with the aid of NASA scientists and is remarkably uncompromising. “It took my breath away,” says three-shuttle-mission astronaut Rhea Seddon, who rode it with her three children. “They were all asking me if the actual launch was like that. I said it was certainly realistic.”
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company, copyright 2003
Engineers were still tweaking the ride when I arrived for a preview in June at the Planetary Plaza, a courtyard dominated by large fiberglass models of Earth, the moon, and Mars (see photo at right). Inside the building, the ride itself, like all things Disney, is embedded in a story. The year is 2036, and groups of four riders make up “Mars teams” in training to fly to the Red Planet. “Welcome to the International Space Training Center,” says actor Gary Sinise, playing the role of capsule communicator, who appears on a video screen. “Those made uncomfortable by enclosed dark spaces, spinning, or loud noises should bypass this experience,” adds an actress playing the flight director.
Uh . . . doesn’t that include everyone?
But Sinise says, “It’s go time!” in a manly way, so when the hatch slides open I gingerly step aboard a capsule attached to the end of a centrifuge arm. In fact, the whole ride consists of four centrifuges, each with 10 arms, with a four-passenger capsule at the end of each spoke. But riders can’t see any of these mechanicals. The spinning centrifuges push riders back into their seats, simulating the chest-pressing inertial forces-known as g-forces-that slam astronauts back during takeoff.
In each capsule, riders are designated “commander,” “engineer,” “pilot,” or-my position-“navigator.” The control panel facing each position is an abridged version of the one installed on the space shuttle, complete with gauges monitoring atmospheric re-entry and cabin pressure. A crystal-sharp LCD screen in front of each rider reveals a view of the launch tower framed by a sky filled with puffy clouds. Then the cabin door hisses shut, and things start happening quickly. As a countdown terminates with the word “Ignition!” the tower falls away, clouds flit past, stars wink on, percussive bass tones roar, and a startling quantity of force crushes me back. Intellectually, I know this is because the centrifuge has started to spin, but the sights and sounds in the capsule make the sensation of actually hurtling into space deeply convincing.
Earth slides off the screen, and the extra g-forces suddenly abate; clearly, the centrifuge has come to a sudden stop. Sinise’s disembodied voice informs us that we are now weightless. “Some people feel weightless at that point; some people don’t,” Disney spokesman Charles Stovall tells me afterward. I’m in the second group. While I no longer feel pressure pushing me into the back of my chair, I can sense Earth’s dependable gravity pulling me down into my seat—a sensation that, on Earth, can be canceled only by a long drop. Perhaps the engineers hoped that rapidly slowing the centrifuge would mimic the sensation of weightlessness, but they can’t overrule physics.
Just as unmanned Mars missions have in the past, we now begin a “slingshot” maneuver past the moon. When a small spaceship swings by the moon, it grabs some of the moon’s 2,287-mile-per-hour orbital velocity, which boosts the ship’s trajectory toward Mars-rather like a dancer flinging a partner across a ballroom floor. “Navigator, prepare for lunar orbit insertion!” Sinise barks, and a yellow button lights up on my control panel. Grinning like an idiot, I press it. The moon swings into view, and the centrifuge spins again. Soon after we whirl around the moon, we enter “hypersleep,” which explains how we manage to travel for three months in a few seconds. We “wake” to a scene that shows us barreling in fast over Mars’s 16-mile-high Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system. We land bouncily, overshoot the runway (built, the story goes, by robots from previous unmanned missions), and nearly plummet into a deep rift near the north polar ice cap.
“We used real satellite data from the two Mars orbiters to create those images,” show producer Sue Bryan tells me later. “You see the real textures, the real minerals, the real colors, the real landforms.” But the point is . . . we made it.
Suffering from mal de mer but otherwise exhilarated, I exit the capsule and explore not the sandy Red Planet but the ride queue area nearby, which snakes under an original Apollo-era lunar rover, designed by NASA for training purposes. (One of its mates sits abandoned on the moon.) Also on display is a 35-foot-diameter “gravity wheel.” Representing a cross section of the Mars rocket, it spins to show how the crew quarters and mess hall would generate artificial gravity during a real journey to Mars.
Sure, the idea is to have fun, but everyone involved in creating this ride has worked hard to give people a real taste of space. At 160 riders every seven minutes, more than 15,000 people could ride each day. With a number that large, it is not far-fetched to imagine a few life paths altered by the experience. “It’s really great if you can plant that seed,” show producer Bob Zalk says, adding that some may already be sprouting: “In early testing, we’ve had a couple of kids come off and say, ‘Gee, I want to be an astronaut!’”
I think I do too.