"THE Kennedy Space Center's space shuttle launch ride has been officially opened to the public, with 39 space veterans testing the ride before its unveiling.
A blaring roar and bone-rattling vibrations jolted the 38 astronauts as the shuttle's engines fired up.
Seconds later, lift-off squeezed them into their seats, marking the successful inauguration of the Kennedy Space Center's space shuttle launch simulator.
The space shuttle veterans who experienced the ride on Friday, just before it officially opened to the public, said it felt a lot like the real thing.
"It's very realistic. It's as good as anything I've trained on. It's spectacular,'' said Charlie Bolden, a veteran of four shuttle missions, who like most of his fellow astronauts showed up for the ceremony clad in his blue flightsuit.
Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Al Worden who flew Apollo missions said they were thrilled to get a taste of a shuttle blast-off.
Developed over three years with the help of astronauts, test pilots and NASA experts, the 60-million-dollar ride was designed to give visitors at Florida's seashore space facility a sense of what a real shuttle launch feels like.
Located just a few kilometers from the actual launchpads, the 44-seat simulator uses high-tech sound, light and motion effects to create the impression of a vertical launch into orbit reaching a speed of 28,000 kilometers (17,500 miles) per hour.
"We have to do clever things to fool the senses,'' said veteran shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss, who helped design the ride.
Before entering the shuttle's payload area, travellers receive a pre-launch briefing from Bolden on giant projection screens.
A rumbling floor, a fog machine and dramatic light effects set the mood for the voyage into orbit.
Once the passengers are strapped in, countdown begins and engines roar to life.
The cabin leans backward as vibration generators and seat compression systems cause riders to sink back into their seats.
The effects trick passengers into feeling the G-forces that mark the initial moments of a space voyage, a sensation that culminates when the vehicle reaches Max-Q, the zone where pressure on the space vehicle reaches its maximum.
In a sombre voice, Mr Boden told travellers: "It was at this moment we lost the Challenger in 1986, so this is always a thoughtful moment.''
The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven astronauts.
A sudden jolt rattled the simulator as a screen shows the two solid rocket boosters are jettisoned.
Then an eerie silence filled the simulator as the craft shuts off its main engines and shifts from three-Gs to zero gravity upon reaching its orbital glide.
The module pitches forward causing passengers to feel as though they are floating weightlessly.
Mr Searfoss says that's his favorite part.
"For about a second, it's exactly the same as we feel in the space shuttle. It's almost a tumbling kind of feeling,'' he said, stressing the whole five-minute ride is highly realistic.
At the end of the voyage, the shuttle's bay doors open to reveal a breathtaking view of the Earth.
"That takes me back to the best part of a space flight, seeing our planet,'' says Searfoss.
Mr Searfoss and Mr Bolden both insist the ride is similar to simulators astronauts train on in Houston, with more vibration, noise and other effects and minus the stomach-churning roller-coaster effect.
Dan Cuffe, 37, an expert in amusement rides and among the first to try out the simulator, shared the astronauts' enthusiasm.
"You really feel the G-forces, it's very realistic,'' he said."