“Our ultimate goal was to make sure that we had both the VR
attraction and the new movie up and running during the anniversary week"
Virtual Reality (VR) has been steadily increasing in popularity and access over the past several years. Numerous technology suppliers are constantly offering new and exciting ways to experience VR, especially in commercial venues such as theme parks and museums.
The Foundation Museum Support Company (FMSC), a division of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, which operates revenue-generating attractions at the National Naval Aviation Museum, is always exploring new attractions technologies. FMSC management attends the IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) Expo every fall in Orlando, Florida, to explore these emerging technologies firsthand. Since 2015, FMSC has been carefully navigating the potentially tricky introduction of the VR world into the museum.
“Simply setting up a set of chairs where museum visitors can experience VR in the museum has never been the right concept for us," says Phillip Crabtree, General Manager of FMSC. “I wanted to bring VR into the museum that not only provided an amazing experience for the visitor actually wearing the VR headset, but also for the visitors observing those wearing the headsets. That’s where the idea for this new Apollo 11 VR Experience was born.”
The attraction was scheduled to open in spring of 2019, several weeks before the premier of the giant screen film Apollo 11: First Steps Edition. “Our ultimate goal was to make sure that we had both the VR attraction and the new movie up and running during the anniversary week and especially Saturday, July 20, the day that marked 50 years from landing and walking on the moon,” Crabtree explains. “These elements were part of an even bigger scope of celebration that the museum planned around the 50th anniversary.”
Crabtree began working with Flight Avionics of North America (FANA) in late 2017 to develop a VR attraction for the museum that would be unique. FANA, based in Sanford, Florida, has been an attraction partner with the museum foundation for over 20 years. They built and continue to maintain the popular motion-based simulator (MBS), painted in Blue Angels Fat Albert colors and located upstairs near the MaxFlight simulators. "FANA approached me with the idea of an Apollo 11 VR experience that would give visitors a chance to relive the 1969 moon landing mission through VR headsets and through motion provided via a pneumatically actuated bench of seats," says Crabtree. “I was sold on the Apollo 11 aspect immediately, knowing that the 50th anniversary was approaching in 2019. However, I wasn’t sold on just having a few benches of seats placed somewhere in the museum along with some signage and pretty paint. Our world-class museum deserved something better, something special, and something we could honor the amazing achievement America made by getting astronauts on the moon by the end of the 60’s, as President Kennedy had challenged.”
"I wanted a themed aspect to the ride that would embrace the look and feel of the space program as it really was in 1969"
The VR portion of the attraction would feature a full five minutes of the major milestones of the Apollo 11 mission recreated in CGI by Crazybridge Studios in Pasadena, California. Crazybridge produced the award-winning CGI featured in the museum’s Blue Angels 4D Experience Theater. The Apollo 11 VR “mission” would give riders a firsthand view of what it might have been like to launch in the Saturn V rocket, travel 200,000 miles through space to the moon, land on the moon, walk on the moon, and then return to earth.
But for Crabtree, the VR and stunning CGI was still not enough. He then started what he says was “the fun part of the process.” In an unintentional, yet funny exchange in the fall of 2017 with FANA President Ken Foster in his Sanford design lab, Crabtree, like President Kennedy in 1961, challenged Foster to do something he had never done before—build a “Disney/Universal Studios-quality attraction around the VR that would be unlike any other.” And just like NASA in the 60’s, Foster accepted the challenge and promised that they would work with the museum to make the attraction to specifically fit Crabtree's vision.
“Standing there in their design lab that day, I told Ken and his team that I wanted a themed aspect to the ride that would embrace the look and feel of the space program as it really was in 1969,” says Crabtree. “I wanted a truss system around the motion benches that would serve as a mounting point for lights and projectors but also conjure up images of the familiar red-painted launch tower for the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program. I also wanted the wall behind the benches to mimic the mission control data screens that provided telemetry and television feed at mission control in Houston. And last but not least, I wanted a replica of a section of one of the consoles that filled mission control in Houston. It was ambitious, but I knew in my gut that it was the only way to make this attraction a perfect fit for our beloved museum in Pensacola."
“We wanted this to be enjoyed by all, regardless if they bought a ticket to ride or not"
Over the next year and a half, Crabtree, Foster, and the FANA team pored over pictures from mission control and the Apollo program to help stimulate as much creativity as possible to make the attraction as authentic looking as they could. “I knew we didn’t have the resources to do an exact replica,” says Crabtree, “but by borrowing some of the techniques that Disney and Universal have recently deployed in their attractions and queuing areas, I knew we could create enough of the key elements that would convince most visitors that they have stepped back in time and into mission control in 1969. Through a lot of hard work and attention to detail, I think we have achieved just that.”
The control console, which actually serves as the VR ride control, looks remarkably like the real thing circa 1969, right down to the government-green paint scheme, Skilcraft U.S. Government black ball point pens placed throughout, and even a slide rule laying near a monitor. “We not only wanted to build a console with buttons, lights, monitors, and old rotary dial phones,” recalls Crabtree, “but also wanted to dress it out with props that would represent that time in history. We even have a pair of horn-rimmed black glasses and an amber glass ashtray. Those flight controllers worked long shifts, 24 hours per day in mission control throughout each Apollo, mission and we wanted to have the console look as if we had taken a snapshot at any given time during the Apollo 11 mission.”
Clipboards with stacks of telemetry paperwork hang from the back of the console, and there are also flight manuals, checklists on split rings, and even phone dial lists. Crabtree says some of them are real and others are “partially real” as they had to take some artistic liberty to re-create the look with the resources they had. The ride operators also wear period clothing to look like the NASA engineers and console workers. The guys wear white dress shirts with skinny black ties and pocket protectors and the ladies wear conservative blouses.
"The ultimate goal is to not only generate revenue...but to also educate visitors and
provide an opportunity for them to re-visit the history"
Crabtree was also determined to make the attraction open and visible to everyone. “We wanted this to be enjoyed by all, regardless if they bought a ticket to ride or not,” he says. “In that aspect, the attraction also became a free exhibit. Unlike so many revenue-generating attractions in museums, this one would be unique in that visitors could actually watch other people on the ride—laughing, screaming or whatever—just like an outdoor roller coaster. We also thought that by being able to make the experience so visible, people unfamiliar with VR would be more at ease as to what to expect. We wanted those unsure of VR to see others having fun and smiling when they finished their simulated Apollo mission."
On the heavily promoted Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary weekend, free mission patches and astronaut ice cream were given away after guests completed an educational fact-finding tour of the space artifacts in the museum. Packages were sold that included a limited-edition, custom-minted Apollo 11 anniversary coin. The $25 package included the Apollo 11: First Steps Edition giant screen movie, as well as a ride on the Apollo 11 VR Experience. It also included special discounts on space-related items in the museum’s Flight Deck Gift Store. Over 1,000 of these packages were sold during the anniversary weekend. There were other events as well, all free, for visitors throughout the weekend, including a real-time stream of the mission as it happened playing on the museum’s new giant LED screen in the Blue Angels Atrium.
The Apollo 11 VR attraction is priced separately from other attractions and has proven to draw equal capture rates to the museum’s two MaxFlight 360 degree simulators. As always, admission to the National Naval Aviation Museum is free.
Crabtree concludes, "The ultimate goal is to not only generate revenue to support the museum, its exhibits, and programs, but to also educate visitors and provide an opportunity for them to re-visit the history of the Apollo program and to re-live the incredible achievement that Apollo 11 was for both the United States and all of mankind 50 years ago this year."
For more information contact Phil Crabtree at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phillip S. Crabtree
Support Company (FMSC)