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What's it like to land NASA's Space Shuttle? We find out

Martyn Williams | Sept. 20, 2012
We're barrelling down the runway at the Kennedy Space Center at about 300 kilometers per hour, and the Space Shuttle is well to the left of the center line.

We're barrelling down the runway at the Kennedy Space Center at about 300 kilometers per hour, and the Space Shuttle is well to the left of the center line.

Astronaut Karol "Bo" Bobko, sitting next to me in the co-pilot's seat, says cooly, "Push on the right pedal to get it back on center."

I hit the pedal and the Shuttle moves back toward the center of the runway, but I shoot past that and hit the opposite pedal to steer left again. Slowly the spacecraft comes under control and rolls to a stop as I await a line of NASA vehicles and TV crews to descend on the Shuttle and capture my triumphant return to Earth.

But they don't arrive. Instead, the screen in front of me flickers and we're making another approach, this time to Halifax Airport through low cloud cover.

The simulator here at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View doesn't get used much for Shuttle practice these days. When Atlantis landed on July 8, 2011, it put to a close one of the most successful and high-profile programs in NASA history.

Today, however, is different. The simulator is getting a workout as Bobko is giving a handful of reporters a chance to land the Space Shuttle. (See video of Bobko explaining the simulator and video of the simulator landing in this YouTube clip.)

In the simulator, things are quite relaxed. Because I am secure in the knowledge that a crash won't be fatal, flying is in some respects just another video game. But with an astronaut next to me, I really want to fly well and put the Shuttle down on the runway.

To do that, I'm concentrating on a stylized Shuttle mark in the center of a head's-up display. It's showing my destination based on current speed and flight path. Nearby is a small circle denoting where I am supposed to be heading. Getting on track isn't too difficult: I just need to line up the stylized Shuttle with a third symbol, a diamond, and I'll end up flying toward the intended target point.

For most of the descent, the Shuttle is coming down at 20 degrees. With no engine power, it's essentially a giant glider, and the steep angle of approach -- much more than the 3 degrees used by commercial airliners -- is needed to keep up the speed.

At about 3,000-feet elevation, I need to pull back on the joystick and put the Shuttle into a much more modest 1.5-degree approach. From there I need to target the touchdown zone on the runway to put the Shuttle on the ground. Once down, it's on to those pedals to steer the craft and slow it down. (See raw video of the simulator approach in this YouTube clip.)

 

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