Cape Canaveral has a brand new zipline! But alas, it is not available to tourists. Not unless you’re a really, really, really rich tourist and have managed to book a ride on a CST-100 Starliner!
One of the requirements for a man-rated launch vehicle is some way to quickly escape the vehicle in case it’s about to go kablooie. Mercury and Gemini had no escape system, other than the vehicle’s own launch abort system (which in the case of Gemini, consisted of ejection seats that were believed to be nearly 100% certain to be fatal if used on the pad, due to the sidewise orientation of the vehicle before launch), other than riding the elevator back down and hoping really really hard. The first pad escape system that would save crews not yet in the vehicle or allow crews to safely egress during an abort was a super-fast elevator on the Saturn V launch umbilical tower that delivered the crews to a blockhouse under the pad, where they could survive for some time, long enough anyway for whatever was going on above to burn itself out and the fumes to dissipate. On Shuttle, things got a little spunkier, with the addition of the slidewire baskets that would let crews slide rapidly to safety — which would consist of several armored transports parked nearby, which they’d jump into and drive away as quickly as possible.
The slidewires were deemed more effective (and more reliable, being powered entirely by gravity) than the Apollo elevator, and so it is perhaps no surprise that ULA, in building a system to meet Boeing and NASA’s specifications, is opting for a wire again. Only instead of a set of baskets that can carry several crew apiece, this one is a zipline with a couple dozen single-person seats, enough to evacuate the crew and ground support personnel, and because they are individual, you just jump in it and go — you don’t have to wait.
But I gotta admit, part of me really likes the fact that this system isn’t being built by some stodgy old defense contractor, like most of the system. No, this one’s being built by a company that specializes in ziplines — Terra-Nova LLC. And it’s pretty much exactly the same system they build for tourist use at locations around the world. They’ve got extensive experience; from their perspective, this was actually a very small job….