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Ask Doc Krock
The Science of Park Magic Explained
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Kevin Krock
Space Mountain Part III
The Story So FarÖ

In Part I, we took a look at a very brief history of roller coasters and the technology that went into the development of Space Mountain. In Part II, we took a look at Space Mountain's major ride systems, like the building, track and brakes. Weíve made our way through the ride queue, said "Hi!" to Neil and Buzz in the Space Probe, and now itís time to get ready to board our shuttle!

Loading and Staging Area

As the shuttle arrives to the loading area, the lap bars holding the riders in their seats pop up and the riders exit from their trip. We have to board quickly! Each shuttle only has about 30 seconds to completely fill and have everyone seated before it must move out of the loading area. Because up to 12 shuttles can be on the track at the same time, and the operators must keep moving shuttles out to make room for arriving shuttles. If it takes longer than 30 seconds, all of the shuttles stop on the track in that "cascade" event that I talked about in Part I.

Once in your seat, you notice that the lap bar doesn't lock in place! It can be a little unsettling for first-time riders, but donít worry; they lock into place as you pull away from the loading area. Since the lap bar is the only rider safety restraint device, it is designed to stay in a locked position any time the shuttle is not stopped at the loading dock. When the shuttle is stopped for loading, a special bar along the track pushes an unlocking lever on the bottom of each shuttle car. This lever is released and the lock activated as soon as the shuttle rolls away from the dock. Don't worry about getting "trapped" in a car, though, ride operators can release the locks manually in case of emergency.

As our shuttle rolls towards the start of the ride, it makes a short stop while the shuttle in front of us rolls down the track to the right and disappears. You see "Mission Control" up in the window, but usually the operator is busy monitoring the security cameras, shuttle locations, and other important system-wide ride operations. However, more is happening than you might think while you are waiting here.

As we quietly sit waiting for our launch time, the operator is measuring the weight of our entire shuttle! Remember I mentioned that up to 12 shuttles could be on the track at the same time? The spacing between them is very important, and, because of gravity, the weight of the shuttle determines how fast it goes: heavier shuttles go faster than lighter ones. So, if a light shuttle starts right before a heavy one, the operator has to provide plenty of room between them so the heavy shuttle doesnít catch up to the slower, lighter shuttle. If you want a fast ride, go late in the day (when the wheel lubrication is warmed up) and hope for a shuttle with a bunch of adults!

However, while a shuttle can never be too light, it can be too heavyÖ

If you are sitting in the front seat and look down at the track in front of "Mission Control", you see something like the following picture:

Switching track
Switching track in front of "Mission Control"

Why does the track split into two directions? Look off to the left side of the shuttle to see an operating panel with a big light and a big button. If everything is ok, the light stays green, and we head off to the right. If the light is red, there is a problem with the shuttle, and the operator presses the red button. Look closely at the picture above. See how the switching track is pointing towards the backstage track "spur" or route? Well, if your shuttle is too heavy (like it can be with 12 adults), the track is manually switched (with the big button I mentioned) and the operator pushes your shuttle off to the side. A Cast Member unloads your shuttle, and you are put on a different shuttle. Another picture of this unload area is shown below, but this one is from the Space Mountain model that was on display in the Disney Gallery for quite a long time:

Switching track on the Space Mountain model
(click for a larger picture)

The shuttle is stopped and offloaded between the first two blue arrows. The picture also shows the storage area for the shuttles off to the far right (last blue arrow), and the track leading up to the rest of the ride is on the left (green arrows). When offloading, the shuttle is stopped in front of a thick, black curtain that prevents you from seeing the storage tracks and break area. It looks like this:

Curtain near the emergency unload area

If you are sitting in the front row of seats, the operator might overshoot the stopping point and push the front of the car past the curtain, in which case you might get a brief glimpse of "backstage" (the areas you donít normally see):

A quick snapshot of the backstage area

In this picture, you can see one of the "spare" shuttles parked on the left track, the Cast Memberís (CM) lockers on the right, and the break area on the left. This is also where the shuttles are maintained. As with most backstage areas, this one is designed for utility rather than fantasyÖitís also a lot quieter back here than out on the loading dock.

Anyway, back to the ride. Our shuttle has been weighed, and the ride control system has determined how much space to leave between our shuttle and the one in front of us. Now our audio soundtrack should start, the brakes release, and we quietly roll off to the right and on to the first "Launch Portal" or chain lift (the chain mechanism that pulls the shuttle up to the top of a hill).


The first lift is pretty uneventful, and its primary purpose is to pull the shuttle out of the big hole in the ground that I wrote about in Part II of this series. You can sort of see this in the picture below (the light blue part is ground level):

Lift No. 1
Space Mountain Lift #1

As we reach the top of Lift #1, the shuttle makes a right turn and enters the "Meteor Shower." We see flashes of light streaking all around our shuttle, and we can hear the sound of the meteors as they pass by us. Look closely at the "meteors," and you notice that their paths donít change and their brightness remains constant. The reason for this is the design of the effect: The meteor streaks are simply lines of fluorescent paint on the black walls of the tunnel illuminated by intense "black light" (also called ultraviolet, or UV light) reflected off of spinning mirrors that direct a small and moving portion of the ultraviolet light towards the walls. What does that mean? Watch for a future article where I go into detail about ultraviolet lighting - it is used all over the Disney parks. Ultraviolet light is beyond one of the ends of the light spectrum that humans can see, so we canít directly see the light filling the tunnel (thatís why itís called "black" light). However, when this special light hits the fluorescent paint on the wall, the paint "fluoresces" or glows brightly with light we can see and looks like a flying meteor.

After passing through the Meteor Shower, the shuttle makes another right turn and heads up Lift #2. This is the longest lift, and takes the shuttle almost to the top of the ride. As we approach the middle of the lift, the shuttle launches into "hyperspace" and we begin to see columns of red and white light surround the shuttle. I donít think anyone is really fooled by this simple "fog and light" effect, but it does add to the anticipation as we go up the lift. When the shuttle reaches the top of the lift and comes out of hyperspace, it makes a slow sweeping left turn around the big satellite. Take a look at the figure below, and follow the pink arrows to see the shuttle route. After we make it around the satellite, the shuttle heads up the very short Lift No. 3. In the picture, this lift is behind the black satellite and to the right of the Lift No. 2 entrance. At the top of this last lift, the shuttle is at the highest point in the ride, and this is where the real fun starts!

Lift No. 2
View of Lift #2 exit on the Space Mountain model
(click for larger picture)

Blast Off!

From the top of Lift No. 3, we can see the entire Space Mountain "galaxy" moving all around us: stars, planets, comets, and asteroids.

Doc Krock's Park Pursuits:
Of the many things you can see in the Space Mountain "galaxy", there are some large objects that remind you of chocolate chip cookies. Are those pictures of REAL cookies? Keep your eyes open and decide for yourself!

All of these images are projected onto the ceiling of the show building by several projectors placed throughout the ride. Some are pretty well hidden from view, but you can recognize them by looking around the track and finding the areas with very bright lights.

As the shuttle starts its decent, you see other shuttles, but all you might see are glowing stripes on the sides of the cars. These stripes are glow-in-the-dark decals (or stickers) made with a "phosphorescent" material [Phosphorescent materials contain a chemical that absorbs light energy and then brightly "emits" or glows in the dark for several minutes and gradually the glow loses intensity]

Doc Krock's Park Pursuits:
As the shuttle exits Lift #2, bright ultraviolet lights charge the decals on either side of the shuttle. Try to locate them, then, try to find other glowing shuttles as the zoom around the track. You can even find this same kind of glow-in-the-dark material on many items in the park.

The shuttle makes a couple of left turns as it comes off of Lift #3, and the speed begins to pick up. In the picture below, you see a pretty good portion of Space Mountain. The pink-direction arrows start at the exit of Lift #2 and continue down the first few turns. Although it's hard to see all of the track in the picture, you can tell that there is a lot of track packed into that small space!

Space Mt. model
Wide view of the Space Mountain model
(click for larger picture)

As we travel down the track (sometimes with the soundtrack pulsing in your ears), gravity pulls the shuttle down towards Earth and you go faster. However, you may be surprised at how slow we are actually going! Throughout most of the ride, the shuttle averages only around 20 miles per hour (MPH), and the fastest it travels is about 30 MPH right near the end of the ride. It certainly feels a lot faster than that doesnít it? Actually, there are a few of reasons for this.

First, one of the main ways we tell how fast we are moving is by seeing things go past us as we travel. In Space Mountain, the darkness removes the visual "cues" on which we normally rely, so this limits our ability to tell how fast we are moving. Space Mountain feels so much slower with the lights on!

Second, the shuttles are designed so the wind is directly in our faces. Since we usually can't feel the wind when we're moving at high speeds, like when we're riding on the freeway in a car with the windows closed, our minds tend to overestimate how fast we are moving when we feel wind blowing on our faces.

The final point ties into the second: Extra "wind" is added along parts of the track with fans to make it feel like you are moving faster than you actually are! For example, letís say that you and the shuttle are moving at 20 MPH and the air in the building is not moving. The air feels like itís hitting your face at 20 MPH. If the shuttle passes a fan that is blowing air towards you at 10 MPH, the air hitting your face now feels like itís moving at 30 MPH. If you do not see or hear the fan, your brain assumes that you are going much faster than you really are. Since the darkness heightens your sense of speed, the actual amount of "artificial wind" doesnít need to be much to create a big effect on the ridersÖthose clever Imagineers sure know how to trick the human mind!

After winding through the trackís upper turns and dips, the shuttle enters a fairly tight clockwise-banked spiral to the right. This is where the shuttle picks up the most speed and the forces of physics affect your body the most. A full discussion of the physics involved in coasters is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find a pretty good, but kind of advanced, discussion listed in the reference section. The end result of all these physical forces, as the shuttle rolls around the spiral, is that you feel a sense of accelerated gravity, which is also referred to as a "g-force" (short for "force of gravity"). In other words, it's that feeling that you are being pushed into your seat. The g-forces in Space Mountain are enough to be thrilling to most people, but they are well within safety and comfort margins Ė theyíre actually pretty tame compared to other coasters which provide short periods of fairly high g-forces!

The End

Just about the time the shuttle hits 30 MPH and we experience the maximum g-force in the ride, the shuttle makes a hard left turn into the "Reentry Tunnel." Then, with a bright flash, the shuttle rapidly decelerates to a crawl in the spinning and pulsating orange "atmosphere" around the shuttle. After reentry, the shuttle slowly rolls towards the loading dock, and then, a brief stop to allow the shuttle in front to clear. As the shuttle rolls to the final stop, the lap bars pop up and allow us to exit. Unfortunately, the ride is over... for now. We take a quick trip up the speedramp to get back to street level and then itís back in line for another great trip through Space Mountain!

I hope you enjoyed our trip through one of Disneyís classic roller coasters and learned a little something along the way. Thanks for coming along!

Before we go, I'd like to thank Lani Teshima, MousePlanet's intrepid "Trip Planner," for reviewing all of the Space Mountain articles. Without her help, they probably would have ended up reading like stereo installation instructions. ;)

Don't forget to send email to Ask Doc Krock! at!

Until next time...
Keep your eyes and minds on the magic!


Part One

Part Two


Roller Coaster Physics 

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Here is one question that I hear quite a bit: "Is the inside of the building painted black?" The answer is no Ė it is actually a very plain light grayish color. At least thatís how it looked in the when I rode with the lights on at the 1996 Annual Passholder party!

The inside of the building is actually pretty ugly in the light (there were rainwater stains on the ceiling when I saw it last), but it was never meant to be routinely viewed by guests with the lights on.

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