- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Thrill-seeking families looking to visit another planet can save about $160 billion with a trip to Mickey Mouse’s Southeastern home for a ride on the Mission: Space attraction.

The technology-heavy educational science stop is located at Epcot Center. It requires visitors to take on the role of commander, navigator, pilot or engineer as they are strapped into a state-of-the-art X-2 Trainer craft and shot out of the Earth’s orbit for a rendezvous with the Martian landscape.

The attraction, five years in the making, took the combined talents of 650 Walt Disney “imagineers” and 25 consultants, including former NASA advisers, five astronauts and scientists from the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As visitors begin their adventure, they enter the Planetary Plaza, where they can view scale models of some of the planets, read famous quotes on mankind’s reach for the stars and look over information about the missions the United States and Soviet Union took to the moon from 1959 to 1976.

The potential astronauts then walk into the 45,000-square-foot International Space Training Center and Space Simulation Lab. While waiting for their mission, visitors can view an actual lunar roving vehicle on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, a precursor to the X-2 Trainer; some famous firsts in space (many fact-based and a few fictional, such as “first family in space”); and a 35-foot-tall zero-gravity wheel to show how astronauts perform in weightless environments.

Visitors then are broken up into four-member teams and asked to accept a crew assignment, then placed in line in the pre-flight corridor. Finally, the mission gets a go, and with the advice of the CapCom instructor (actor Gary Sinise), team members are led into their craft, where they are strapped in and look straight ahead to view a notebook-size monitor.

What they actually are entering is a pod designed to mimic a next-generation spacecraft using lightweight carbon-fiber materials. What the “astronauts” are seeing out their windows requires flat-screen video technology that uses components not yet available to consumers, including LCD glass, electronic video cards and a show-control computer.

Imagineers even used powerful stereo woofers positioned behind each pod and computer-generated planet images from data compiled from the real space missions Mars Odyssey and Global Surveyor to give guests the most realistic-sounding and -looking ride possible.

As the four-minute mission ensues, they will be asked to push buttons at the proper times and hang onto a joystick as they perform timed tasks critical to the mission’s success.

The G-forces experienced during launch are of less force than an actual space-shuttle launch but absolutely will set off the “urp” meter for visitors not used to this type of ride.

The 10-arm ride system can accommodate 160 guests simultaneously, and the magic behind the experience involves the latest advances in centrifuge technology, with more than 30 computers required to control the entire ride system and its motion-control functions.

After the ear- and eye-popping landing, visitors depart into a massive multimedia playroom, the Advanced Training Lab, which offers a nice selection of activities to further the space experience.

Three of the best include Space Race, in which 60 people play a video game along with World Wide Web surfers (www.disneymissionspace.com) to send a rocket from Mars back to Earth; a third-person action-adventure game in which players control an astronaut as they explore Mars’ surface; and the very clever Postcards From Space.

Postcards allows junior directors to make videos of themselves melded with animated backgrounds, such as a space walk or a moving alien body, and e-mail the videos to pals. Consistent with the “education meets fun” theme of Mission: Space, as the special message is being designed and finalized, the computer displays space-exploration facts on the screen.

Families can plan a trip to Epcot’s Mission: Space by stopping by the Walt Disney World Tickets and Reservations Web site (http://wdw. reservations.disney.go.com).

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