“Euthanasia Coaster” is a hypothetic euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely – with elegance and euphoria – take the life of a human being. Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death. Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in mechanical engineering, space medicine, fairground psychology  and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasant, elegant and ritualistic. Celebrating the limits of the human body but also the liberation from the horizontal life, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster: John Allen, former president of the famed Philadelphia Toboggan Company, once sad that “the ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead. This could be done, you know.”

Design, engineering: Julijonas Urbonas
Medical advisor: Dr. Michael Gresty,  Spatial Disorientation Lab, Imperial College, London
Model making: Paulius Vitkauskas
Photography: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius
Video: Science Gallery
Video footage (human centrifuge training): William Ellis

© 2010 Julijonas Urbonas[1200].jpg

Model (scale 1:500):
Euthanasia Coaster

Euthanasia, execution

Height: 510 m
Drop lenght: 500 m
Track length: 7544 m

Lift: 120 s
Drop: 10 s
Exposure to 10 g: 60 s
Total: 3:20

Max speed: 100m/s
Inversions: 7
Max g-force: 10 g

Cause of death:
Cerebral hypoxia, lack of oxygen supply to the brain.

Additional effects:
Greyout – loss of color vision;
Tunnel vision – loss of peripheral vision;
Blackout – complete loss of vision;
G-LOC – g-force induced Loss Of Consciousness.[1200].jpg[1200].jpg


Seated, harnessed with a health monitoring system, and strapped to the seat of a single-seat coaster vehicle, you are slowly towed to the top of the drop-tower. It takes a while, as the ride is about half a kilometre long! Hence, you have a few minutes to contemplate your decision and your life in retrospect. You even find enough time to adapt to the height and get through a series of imaginary fatal falls, while realising that the objects on the ground are getting smaller. Slow lift is an important illusion that intensifies the perception of height. The slightest movement of the car triggers drumming heartbeats and tests your decision… The top! If this test has not changed your mind yet, then at this point you have no choice but to submit yourself to the very last fall. Yet you still have a few minutes for the last words and goodbyes, or just enjoying the exhilarating bird’s-eye view of the surroundings. You relax and press the FALL button. Whirrr… swish – the ultimate surrender to gravity! No, you realize, in fact it is even greater than just giving up, as in the blink of an eye you enter the heart-line, the whirling element of the coaster track, where your heart stays roughly in line with the centre of the fall trajectory. In other words, your body spins around the heart while you fall. Gravitational choreography! The scooting gust of wind, goose bumps, suspension of breath, and vertigo — a set of experiences comprising a sort of fairground anaesthesia — prepare you for the fatal part of the ride.

Now you are already falling at a speed close to the terminal velocity, when the force of air drag becomes equal to the force of gravity, thus cancelling the acceleration. You feel your body as if supported by an air pillow. Just after this point, the track smoothly straightens forward, entering the first loop of the coaster, a continuously upward-sloping section of the track that eventually results in a complete 360-degree circle, completely inverting the riders at the topmost part. The centrifugal force drives the car upward, and you are literally pinned to the seat, your buttocks’ flesh is pressed against the ergonomic planes of the seat so hard that your whole body is almost immobilised. The tissues of your face start drooping down — it looks like ageing remarkably. Breathing requires more effort, as the ribs and the rest of the internal organs are pulled down, which empties air from the lungs. But most probably you are already unconscious, as this force rushes the blood to the lower extremities of the body, thereby causing oxygen deficiency in the brain. It is exactly this cerebral suffocation, also known as cerebral hypoxia, that is going to kill you. If you are still conscious, you are more resistant to the high g-forces than the majority of people, but don’t worry: the loop is engineered in such a way that the force will remain constant despite the changes in speed, thus ensuring that the painful level of acceleration is not reached. And be assured, the second loop will definitely do its job. In the meantime, if you are lucky, or, rather, g-force-resistant enough to be awake, your vision may blur, lose colour (greyout) and peripheral sight (tunnel vision), or even disappear completely (blackout), together with hearing. Eventually, this experience — accompanied with disorientation, anxiety, confusion, and, most importantly, euphoria — is crowned with G-LOC (g-force induced loss of consciousness), during which the body is completely limp, and vivid bizarre dreams occur, such as being in a maze and unable to get out, or floating in a white space, not knowing who you are, why you are here, etc. Of course, you can tell the story only if you survive, which is virtually impossible. But you might ignore this and suppose you have survived. You would soon recover from G-LOC, remaining unconscious, and your body would flail around in a chaotic fit that is called ‘funky chicken’ in aeromedical slang, as the neurons in the brain – replenished with extra oxygenated blood pumped harder from the heart – begin firing once again. This causes arms and legs to twitch uncontrollably. Finally, coming around, although still confused and disoriented, unable to remember anything, you would regain your memories in a few hours, and they would be one of the most memorable, with a peculiar souvenir on your legs: little red pinpoints all over the skin as a result of blood leaks through the blood vessels, a sort of gravitational measles.

The rest of the ride, six or five loops, proceeds with your body being numb, ensuring that the trip ends your life. You die, or, more accurately put, your brain dies of complete oxygen deprivation, a legal indicator of death in many jurisdictions. The biomonitoring suit double-checks if there is a need for the second round, which is extremely unlikely, as the result is guaranteed by seven-fold repetition.

Video: Science Gallery
Video footage (human centrifuge training): William Ellis


What was your inspiration?

Briefly put, my PhD study and my long term affair with amusement parks.

This project is a part of my PhD research at the Royal College of Art in the department of Design Interactions. In this research, entitled "Gravitational Aesthetics", I am investigating various unique experiences produced by our altered relationships with gravity thanks to technologies such as amusement rides, orbiting space habitats, powered exoskeletons, or muscle fatigue blockers.

Amusement park plays an important role here for two reasons: firstly, for it possesses a poorly studied unique sort of whole-bodily experienced aesthetics, and secondly, for my long term affair, both critical and artistic collaboration, with them. More specifically, between the vast variety of diverse carousels, it is roller coaster what draws my full investigative attention, since this ride is capable of virtuosically manipulating both horizontal and vertical dimensions. Today this device is quite at a stall of the innovation as it has already reached the peak of bodily stimulation intensity. In the Euthanasia Coaster I wanted to overcome it, even dramatise, celebrate this historical moment of the ride and the rider's body.

At first, what was designed it was just the fatal falling trajectory with no purpose but one: to kill the rider pleasurably and elegantly. It was sort of a design thought experiment what the ultimate roller coaster would be like and what possible usages it would be open to. Later on, having received lots of feedback from my scientific advisers and the public, more trajectories started to appear, but this time not as engineered curvatures but rather as story-lines suggesting different uses. The key one, of course, was euthanasia. It is because the coaster may provide not just pleasant death in terms of physiological pleasure but also, and more importantly, an alternative death ritual appealing to both the individual and the mourning public.

Another possible usage -- a "hacked" thrill ride -- was suggested by an aeronautic engineer who happened to visit the coaster's scale model during an exhibition. "Your machine could be hacked, you know, " she sad. After my confusion she continued: "Using anti-g-trousers that prevent pilots from blackout and fainting, I believe I would survive the ride and turn it into the most extreme thrill ride."

Do you really believe it's more humane, say, than a lethal injection?

First of all, we need to clarify what do we mean by saying "humane" as there is quite a myriad ways of understanding it. Of course, the key description might be something which is painless, pleasant, basically referring to some kind or level of pleasure. But the human being is a cultural being and therefore, in my opinion, we have also refer this term to dignity, compassion, benevolence and meaningfulness. The latter is exactly what a lethal injection lacks. It is highly hospitalised and not much different from a mundane injection of medicine. There is no special ritual nor death is given special meaning except that of the legal procedures and psychological preparation. It is like death is divorced from our cultural life as much as the death rituals in our secular and postmodern Western society. But if it is already legal, why not to make it more meaningful, not in a way the Aboriginals mourn the deceased by ecstatic singing and dancing around a bonfire, for example, but as a ritual adapted to the contemporary world where churches and shrines are being replaced by theme parks or at least achieving the equal power of producing spiritual effects (more and more people attend theme parks for self-meliorative purposes -- relaxation, self-cultivation, socialisation). This is, of course, a food for thought.

It has been observed that the jumpers, people who commit suicide by falling to the ground, often demonstrate some sort of aesthetic preference for a nice place or structure to kill themselves, for example, by traveling long distances for that, but also performing some forms of rituals such as folding their clothes neatly before the jump or holding a hat on the head with both hands all the way down. What's more, sometimes the jumpers fall undressed or perform some choreography -- it seems that they care about how their bodies meet the air. All this testifies that self-murderers are not apathetic in relation to the ritual of killing themselves, and seek some sort of aesthetic meaning in it.

In fact, falling is a unique experience that sets itself apart from other types of death: while rushing towards the ground or, in the case of the Euthanasia Coaster, towards the loop, knowing and anticipating with the whole body the exact time of death, there is still a fraction of time for reflection. Its real-time interface and inherent dramatic structure -- the leap, the fall, the impact -- a three act tragedy, are not present in lethal injection, shooting yourself or in overdosing on drugs, for example. Pull the trigger and you receive the shot -- there is no gap between the act and its result, while with lethal injection or overdose there is an unknown time interval. In the Euthanasia Coaster the ritualistic drama is exaggerated even more: there is a lift up the tower, the drop, the serpentine fall, the vertiginous and euphoric entry to a series of the loops, and, eventually the fatal ride within the loop. Moreover, another unique thing is that this dramatic spectacle is open to the public, be it the relatives of the rider or the victims of the sentenced to capital punishment, revealing the full drama of their demise. Given all that, the coaster incorporates the private and public aesthetics of a humane and meaningful death: for the faller it is a painless, whole-body engaging and ritualised death machine, for the observers -- a monumental mourning machine.

Has anyone shown interest in trying it out?

Many people consider it positively and would love to die on it, were they terminally ill or bored of their too long life in some distant future. However, there are almost equally many sceptics and people who are extremely disgusted by the idea. The majority of the latter motivate their negativism saying that the project encourages suicide and euthanasia. Those are usually people who are either too naive to think of it as a real project, underway to be built, or they lack a sense of humour. I agree, the topic of death is a sensitive area, but I want to emphasise that I do not encourage suicide, nor do I discourage. I just take the fact that euthanasia is legal in some countries and it is executed in an extremely boring fashion, and "humane" voluntary death could be more meaningful, personal, ritualistic... On the other hand, the project could be just a sci-fi story, not much different from the cinematic or literary ones.

Other sceptics say that the great part of the engineering of the coaster is a futile work because the rider would die from the fear triggered by the horrifying height of the drop-tower without even reaching the fatal part of the ride. Whereas other people are less dramatic and question whether the ride experience would be enjoyable. All of these arguments have something to do with personal tastes and the fear of thrills, and therefore are usually shallow, that is not refering to any facts or scientific evidence.

The uneasiness of the reactions is often followed by some kind of suspicion or disbelief -- the coaster is considered as an unreal or fictitious thing. But emphasising the fact that the project is backed by real techno-scientific work, the coaster is realistic and feasible. What remains unreal, however, is the device's current social or cultural acceptance. Thus it is in a way a social science fiction (flavoured with black humour).

I imagine it would not make such an effect was it invented in the 1920s when many roller coasters were so harsh that some of them featured even a nurse on duty to deal with any complications from the ride.

What's your response to people who say it's a morbid idea?

As I mentioned before, it is not for everybody, very much like thrill rides and horror movies are enjoyed not by everyone. But this project has no single interpretation and therefore for those who are terrified by this death coaster idea I would give a hint to look at the project as a unique sort of sci-fi narrative. It could be considered as a tangible design interpretation or a design equivalent to the literary versions of the euthanasia machines found in the stories such as Kurt Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House" where euthanasia is a citizen's patriotic duty, and the movies like "Soylent Green," "Children of Men."

Do you ever see this getting built?

Yes, but in the future where the politics of technologies are much less centralised and more creative, diversified and democratic.

Would you try it out?

When the time comes, definitely, yes.

Online articles about the coaster:

Wiki >

Discussion with Régine Debatty about the coaster >>