Someone, please build this: the zero-gravity roller coaster

There’s a point on all roller coasters when you crest a hill and, for a heartbeat, you’re weightless. It’s the reason we ride coasters.

Well, I saw a story the other day in Popular Science about a new kind of coaster where you’d be weightless for eight seconds.

Count it out: one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi….

Eight seconds of weightless would last forever.

Right now, the zero-gravity coaster exists only on paper, but according to Popular Science, there’s a company in Southern California called BRC Imagination Arts that’s ready to build it. Cut them a check today, the story says, and you’ll have your coaster by next Christmas.

BRC isn’t some fly-by-night outfit. When I worked in newspapers, I covered the theme-park industry, and I met BRC’s founder, Bob Rogers, a few times. He’s whip smart and really clever. BRC’s worked on everything from the Test Track pavilion at Epcot to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. These guys know what they’re doing, and if Bob Rogers says he can build a coaster where you’re weightless for eight seconds, I believe him.

Here’s what he told Popular Science about the proposed coaster:

You’d sit in a capsule rather than an open car, so there’d be no wind and no visual cues telling you you’re moving. You’d be strapped in, but loosely.

Superman: Escape from Krypton

The track would be shaped like a giant letter “L.” You’d rocket along the track then curve straight up, like the Superman coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain (see picture).

You’d climb at about 100 m.p.h., and as you neared the top, the capsule would slightly but suddenly decelerate. You’d be thrown out of your seat, like a stone from a slingshot, but the capsule would instantly match your speed.

You would, in effect, be floating inside the capsule.

After a moment, you’d begin to fall, but so would the capsule, matching your speed on the way down and eventually slowing so that you settled back in your cushioned seat.

By the coaster came to a stop, you would have experienced weightlessness for eight long seconds.

If you were to fly NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” the plane the space agency uses to train astronauts, you would experience weightlessness for 25 seconds.

Popular Science says ordinary coasters cost about $30 million but BRC’s zero-gravity coaster would cost $50 million, which sounds like a lot — heck, that is a lot — but Disney spent a reported $100 million to Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom a few years ago. Fifty million dollars to a theme-park developer is nothing.

I have no idea whether when or whether anyone will actually build BRC’s zero-gravity coaster. I have no idea whether it’s a smart for untrained civilians to be subjected to eight seconds of weightlessness.

But if someone builds it, I’ll volunteer to test the thing, as many times as it takes.

Night launch

NASA photo

The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for liftoff Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, weather permitting. It will be NASA’s last shuttle mission.

When we lived in Orlando, we got to see a lot of launches, mostly from random parking lots around town.

Orlando is about 50 miles west of Kennedy, and from that distance, in broad daylight, the shuttle was like a very bright Roman candle with a thick tail of smoke that appeared over the horizon and arced across the sky. It dimmed after a few minutes then became a tiny point of light then disappeared in the heavens.

Once, though, we watched a night launch in New Smyrna Beach, about 30 miles up the coast from Kennedy.

We grabbed supper at this place on the beach and watched the countdown on the TV in the bar. T-minus 60 seconds, we walked to the beach and looked south and waited.

For a moment or two, it looked like sunrise, then the rocket appeared over the horizon. It was brighter than I imagined it would be, and I understood the tremendous power it takes to put a rocket in orbit.

The shuttle flew up the coast toward us. It was miles overhead and miles off the coast, but the flames were so bright I could easily read the numbers on my watch.

We could tell when the solid rocket boosters fell away because the light dimmed, but we could still see it heading north and up.

We lost sight of it after a few minutes, but we just stood there, staring after it, and I realized we weren’t alone. There were pockets of people all up and down the beach, but not a lot. This was probably in ’96 or ’97. Shuttle launches were routine by then. A lot of people who lived in Florida ignored space shuttles the same way they would an airplane overhead, but we still have airplanes.

Soon enough, there won’t be any more space shuttles.

Greetings from Mos Eisley Spaceport

The miniature landspeeder in a case next to the full-sized version at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

I was 11 when I saw Star Wars at the Cinema in Huntington, W.Va. I saw it with my dad and uncle, and I remember when it was over, my uncle called it the dumbest movie he’d ever seen. I thought it was awesome.

I’m old enough now to recognize the movie’s flaws — the dialog is clunky, the acting is stiff and some of the battle scenes are interminable — but I still think it’s pretty neat (the sequels, other than The Empire Strikes Back, not so much).

So, when I heard that a touring exhibit of props, costumes and models from the movies was coming to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., I told my wife we should take the kids. (The museum, which also hosts Space Camp, is near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where Wernher von Braun’s team developed the rockets that carried the astronauts to the moon.)

Mock-up of the lunar module at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
The Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Once we got there, of course, I realized the exhibit isn’t really for kids at all. It’s for us Generation X parents.

My daughter, who’s 10, has seen the original trilogy and played the Lego Star Wars video game. She likes Star Wars well enough, but it doesn’t mean anything to her. She’s into Harry Potter, not Han Solo.

She hung in there, but what she really wanted was to get back to the museum’s climbing wall.

Junior did OK, too. He’s only 4. We think he’s still too young to see Star Wars, but I showed him parts of Empire before we went to Huntsville.

I tried to explain to him that the rubber puppet in the glass case was really Yoda, the same one that’s in the movie, but he couldn’t make the connection. To him, it was just a puppet. To him, the Star Wars exhibit wasn’t nearly as exciting as the play place outside.

The X-wing fighter.

With the clock running out on our kids’ patience, my wife and I split up. She really wanted to see C-3PO and R2-D2. I lingered by the Millennium Falcon.

The Millennium Falcon.

It was bigger than I thought it would be. It’s about 5 feet across, and it was covered with doodads and scuffs and artfully chipped paint that somehow make it look enormous in the movies.

Close-up of the Millennium Falcon's cockpit.

Once we left the exhibit hall, my wife took Junior outside to the play place while I dragged our daughter to Docking Bay 94. This is a mock-up of the Millennium Falcon. Four people at a time sit in the cockpit and watch a short film about faster-than-light travel through the cockpit window.

We went in with another dad and his daughter. Sitting in the cockpit before the movie started, I said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” The geek dad laughed. Our kids looked at us like we were idiots.