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Thursday, December 27, 2012 / 11:00 AM

Shaken, Not Stirred: The St. Louis Science Center’s New Simulator

Shaken, Not Stirred: The St. Louis Science Center’s New Simulator

Courtesy of the St. Louis Science Center

 

What’s five bucks, shakes around, and tries to scare you? You think of a dirty answer—we’ll go with the new Flight Simulators at the St. Louis Science Center.

What people really want from a simulator—a capsule big enough for a small party, mounted on a hydraulic arm, that projects various adventures on a screen within—is to be tossed around and to shriek like they’re on a roller coaster (or, as one SLSC employee phrased it, “inside a giant washing machine.”)

“Riding the Wind,” which places the passengers inside the unholy gales of a tornado, is probably the wildest of the journeys. (None of the simulations will turn you completely upside-down, unlike the Star Trek: The Exhibition simulator the SLSC had a while back.) It starts, like all the rides, with a cool computer animation advertising the company (Pulseworks) that programs them. Then, thanks to an animation, you learn about wind and downdrafts and updrafts, and experience the kind of turbulence that makes you turn white when you’re on a commercial flight. Suddenly, you’re within a tornado. The Simulator is bucking like a bronco. Yee-haw! A barn and silo are stripped of their wooden slats while you watch, laughing and screaming. Comically, a truck flies into the tornado and floats around with a quietly evil gentleness. Its hazard lights are blinking. It’s freaky.

The Simulator is really bucking now. You’ll slide into your friends (or strangers) on the wide seats. As with all the other simulations, you need to grab the padded rail before you to keep from tumbling over—it’s part of the fun.        

“Solar Coaster” is heavy on the fun, light on the education, and that’s okay. It’s an animated rollercoaster ride through the solar system. The coaster—and Simulator—zips up and down steeply as you fly past Mercury, Mars, and all the rest. It’s a trippy, sci-fi sort of an animation, narrated by a female robotic voice. Feel free to scream over her dulcet tones.

“FA-18 Hornet” does not appear to be an animation, but actual footage of an F-18 Super Hornet taking off from and landing back on the USS Constellation aircraft carrier. When the pilot does a simple roll in the air, it looks like you’re going to smash into the earth (which would be kind of cool, actually.) You get to pull a few Gs, as the fighter pilots say. It’s a bit jerky, and maybe a little boring compared to the more elaborate animated journeys of the other three Simulator options. It would have been nice if it ended with the plane’s tailhook catching the elastic wire on the flight deck, but no dice.

Finally, “Bermuda Triangle” puts the viewer inside a submersible mini-craft, like the kind James Cameron like to show off in. You dive down, and float past fishies and sea turtles—it’s otherworldly and calming, not unlike the IMAX films shot underwater that they sometimes screen next door at the Omnimax Theater.

There’s a constant “creaking” noise, like you get in a lot of nautical entertainments. Your craft zooms around and discovers a ship graveyard on the ocean floor. You are making a wild discovery, and you smile. “Bermuda Triangle” might be the least physically violent of all the simulation options, but it was my personal favorite.

Each Simulator ride lasts about five minutes. You have to be 42” tall to ride—smaller kids might get tossed around too much. Once the ride has started, if you freak out from claustrophobia or the like, there’s an emergency stop button within every passenger’s reach in the center of the roof of the capsule.

All of these Simulator rides imitate chaotic and sudden shifts in motion. Maybe the world is ready for a kinder, gentler simulation. Like, wouldn’t it be cool if a simulator ride imagined what it’s like to be a condor gently soaring on thermals, or a dung beetle rolling up to its sandy desert hidey-hole? Yes—there should totally be a dung beetle simulation. That is so my speed.

St. Louis Science Center, 5050 Oakland, 314-286-4621, slsc.org.

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