Nearly 40 astronauts on Friday became the first to ride aboard a NASA tourist attraction that recreates a ride aboard the space shuttle, complete with the deep rumble of liftoff and a serene view of the earth from orbit.
The $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center is the agency's first venture into the theme-park ride business, and the astronauts said it is comparable to a real shuttle flight.
"It's pretty realistic with all the shakes and rattles and vibration," said John Young, commander of the first shuttle mission and one of those who took the inaugural ride.
A handful of space veterans were consulted to ensure the ride was authentic.
The simulator building was designed to resemble those by the launch pads a few miles away. Visitors enter though a steel gantry and receive a mission "briefing" from Hall of Fame astronaut Charlie Bolden on three elaborate projection screens in a circular room.
Steam billows out of the floor and the room shakes as Bolden explains the mission process. The doors open and the computer announces, "Trainees report to simulator."
Visitors are strapped in and tilted back 90 degrees, the same position in which astronauts wait two hours before launch.
The simulator also spends a lot of time on science and education, and even uses NASA's code of acronyms to explain the liftoff.
Young and shuttle pilot Bob Crippen said the ride overemphasizes some things, particularly the noise. It's not as loud in real life and doesn't sound exactly the same.
"You're sitting in there in the cockpit, you're wearing a helmet and you're a long ways from where the noise is coming from," Young said. "There's a clunk when you separate from the solid rocket boosters, there's a click when you separate the external tank."
The venture was funded with visitors center admissions and private financing, not taxpayer money. The cost of a ride is included in the price of admission to the space center - $38 for adults, $28 for children.
Space center officials proposed the idea seven years ago, searching for a new way to renew interest in the shuttle program.
After leaving the simulator, tourists follow a long, dark walkway with twinkling stars on the ceiling and a bright picture of earth at the bottom. After that is a gift shop.
None of the astronauts seemed too interested in the T-shirts, shot glasses, key chains and freeze-dried ice cream, but they all seemed thrilled with the ride.
Decades ago, these same astronauts docked with the Russians, rescued satellites and walked on the moon. These days, they are balding, with graying hair and a few extra pounds filling their blue flight suits.
They still remember vividly the sights and sensations of space flight, and the simulator is the closest many will get to reliving that experience.
"You obviously can't get to three G's in here," said former shuttle pilot Roy Bridges. "But they do make the initial feelings of each of the events feel very realistic."