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Best Thrills: Rollercoasters Or Space Shuttles?

A ride into space is the ultimate roller coaster. Right?
CK Kimball
September 14 2021
One far-out roller coaster: CK Kimball

You’re strapped in, back pressed against the seat, as you feel the vibration from the vehicle amping up around you. Then, a moment of anticipation before you feel yourself launched from 0 to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds straight up into the atmosphere.

That describes, of course, the experience of the Kingda Ka rollercoaster located at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. Kingda Ka, opened in 2005, is the tallest roller coaster in the world at 456 feet from the ground at its peak and the former record holder for fastest having only been surpassed in 2010 by the Formula Rossa coaster in Ferrari World of Abu Dhabi. For thrill-seekers looking for that edge, Kingda Ka often tops the lists for most intense. But how does the Six Flags record stomper match up to a Space Shuttle launch? 

In the fast-paced development of humans and space travel, a lot of focus has been on the basics. Getting humans from Earth to orbit alive. That is to say, while the first private citizen space launch, Inspiration4, through SpaceX is a reality, the “comfort” of space travel is not a priority. There’s no in-flight service, first-class, or streaming entertainment options like humans are accustomed to with commercial air travel. The experience of a flight to space, at this point in time, is about the thrill of human innovation… and the most wicked, extreme ride off the planet. 

But is it too extreme for even the most seasoned rollercoaster enthusiast? Let’s cover the facts.

Shuttle launch: NASA

The top speed for Kingda Ka is 128mph while Formula Rossa’s speed tops out at 149mph. For a space shuttle to reach minimum orbit, it has to accelerate from zero to 18,000 miles per hour in eight and a half minutes. That’s about 0 to 60mph in 5 seconds at first take-off, which is actually slower than Kingda Ka. The difference here is the shuttle doesn’t stop. It increases in speed, breaking the sound barrier in 45 seconds, and moving ten times faster than a speeding bullet. So, for speed over time, the point goes to the Space Shuttle.

Kingda Ka: Shutterstock 

But speed means little if it isn’t felt. The International Space Station (ISS) itself orbits earth at 5 miles a second. The thrill of a riding a Shuttle launch is the g-force or the feeling of being pressed back in your seat. The maximum g-force of a Space Shuttle is typically 3 g, and the g-force of Kingda Ka (and most hydraulic launch coasters) can reach 3.5 to 6.3 g. So, roller coasters are now back in the scoring column.

But again, an important distinction here is the g-force of a Space Shuttle doesn’t let up until orbit. The experience of extreme g-forces is only felt for a few seconds on Kinda Ka and, in fact, the ride itself is only about 2 minutes long. Meanwhile, during a shuttle launch, you’ll be pulled on by g-forces for 8 minutes and 30 seconds, which is the entirety of the launch until Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) in orbit. The experience has been described as feeling like weighing three times your body weight. For eight minutes. That’s intense.

After the heart-pounding experience of launch, the area of space travel that has enthralled non-astronauts for decades is, of course, zero-g gravity. Weightlessness. In rollercoaster language it’s known as “air-time or airtime” referring to riders experiencing weightlessness (the sense of lifting out of your seat) or negative G-force (accelerating downwards faster than freefall) and Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio is the current “airtime” record holder of any rollercoaster at 27.2 seconds.

But that’s cumulative over three inversions. Compare that to Space Shuttle travel when, once in orbit past MECO, a human is just weightless…well, indefinitely. We guess 27.2 seconds is still a good rollercoaster record.

For cheap thrills and little taste of the experience of space travel, some of the world’s most intense rollercoasters are a fine idea on a sunny afternoon. But the real experience of an 18,000mph launch with 8 minutes of consistent g-force followed by the surreal sensation of Zero-g? Nothing on Earth will come close. Thank goodness there’s a long history of eccentric billionaires investing in theme parks and entertainment to try and take a whack at it.



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