Sign of the apocalypse #8,674: Your kid complains about an amusement park because “it doesn’t even have any stratacoasters.” It might not have happened yet, but if certain marketing departments and roller-coaster enthusiast organizations have their way, you can bet it’s coming. The appropriate response, of course, is to lecture the kid on how “in my day, all we had were megacoasters, and we were happy with that!”

The terms megacoaster and stratacoaster define classes of roller coasters as separated by the maximum height of their tallest drops. High-end amusement parks compete for press and for guests by constantly waging an arms race to build bigger, taller, faster roller coasters, and these buzzwords are a derivative of such efforts. It breaks down like this:

  • Gigacoaster — a maximum drop height of 200 to 299 feet
  • Megacoaster — a maximum drop height of 300 to 399 feet
  • Stratacoastera maximum drop height of 400 to 499 feet

A hypercoaster is a rollercoaster designed explicitly for speed and negative G-forces — without any inverted elements such as loops or corkscrews. Most hypercoasters are gigacoasters, so much so that the terms are often interchangeable, muddling an already confusing lexicon of roller-coaster taxonomy. The fact that a megacoaster is taller than a gigacoaster is also a bit counterintuitive to those of us who grew up knowing that gigabytes were bigger than megabytes.

These terms also apply only to closed-circuit coasters, wherein the passenger cars complete a full forward-motion transit of the track and arrive back at their starting position without ever reversing direction. Coasters that double-back on themselves are shuttle or boomerang coasters.

As of today, there are only two stratacoasters on the planet. Top Thrill Dragster at Ohio’s Cedar Point was the world’s first, topping out at 420 feet when it opened in 2003. Kingda Ka at New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure dethroned the Dragster in 2005 when it unveiled its 456-foot drop.

Still, you don’t have to be the tallest coaster to earn notoriety: Top speed, length, loop count, G-forces, and straightforward uniqueness can earn you supreme coaster enthusiast marks. The latter will likely be the case for the world’s third tallest coaster, set for debut sometime in 2014 — thanks to the unusual agency that’s planning on building it.


Get the answer.

What unlikely agency plans to build the world’s third tallest roller coaster for debut in 2014, a thrill ride topped exclusively by the only two so-called stratacoasters on Earth?

The agency in question is NASA, which is currently putting the final specifications down for the Orion Emergency Egress System (OEES), a roller coaster that will speed astronauts away from dangerous situations that occur atop the launch pad of the next generation of manned space vehicles.

The OEES will have a maximum drop height of 380 feet, which would qualify it as the world’s tallest megacoaster, except that the OEES won’t include a closed circuit track. Ironically, the successor to the space shuttle — the Orion spacecraft — will have an emergency escape system that is a shuttle coaster.

Openly describing the OEES as a roller coaster, NASA sought out the advice of coaster designers to make sure the system could meet the agency’s exacting safety and performance demands. Per mission rules, the OEES must be capable of ferrying astronauts from the top of the Ares I rocket launch tower to a reinforced bunker hundreds of feet away in just four minutes. Power failure cannot deter the function of the escape mechanism. The controls must be straightforward, so as to allow easy operation in dire situations.

The answer is a gravity-powered roller coaster that seats the entire Orion crew and drops them straight down the full height of he launch tower before leveling off and rolling to the safety bunker. (That kind of negative G-force ride undoubtedly qualifies the OEES as a hypercoaster.)

The OEES will replace the current escape system in use with the space shuttle: Three-passenger baskets strung on 1,200-foot steel cables that slide down near — but not into — safety sheds. Spacecraft aside, NASA has been designing thrill rides for a few decades, it seems.

If it keeps to its schedule, OEES will go online in 2014 at the same time that Project Constellation, the umbrella effort that includes the Ares I and the Orion, becomes operational. When that happens, parks such as Cedar Point and Six Flags might have to make room for a new competitor in the coaster arms race, one with an address of Launch Complex 39B, Cape Canaveral, FL.

That’s not just some stomach-dropping amusement engineering — it’s some coaster-crushing Geek Trivia.

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