How to Land a Space Shuttle: Exclusive Lessons from a Veteran Astronaut

Ned space

I didn't crash. I am still, to this day, not sure how, but -- honest -- I made a safe landing.

I was in one of NASA's snazziest toys: the so-called motion-base simulator for space shuttle crews in Houston. In the front-left seat was Scott Altman, the commander of STS-125, this month's mission to rescue the Hubble Space Telescope. In the front-right was a rank amateur: me.

The simulator -- a mockup of the shuttle cockpit mounted on stilts so that it moves and shakes like the real ship --tilted upward so that we lay on our backs.

VIDEO: Nasas Hubble rescue

There was no countdown. Instead, Altman talked me through a make-believe launch.

"There's the engines coming up right there," he said, and...

"Boom! Off the pad, 102, 102, auto, tower clear."

Outside the cockpit windows were projection screens showing a rudimentary view of the Florida coast from an astronaut's-eye view.

The windows are surprisingly small. The graphics remind one of a 1990s video game; they've never been updated because the astronauts don't need more.

'Houston, Atlantis...'

"At eight seconds, we see the shuttle roll," said Altman, keeping up the narrative for my benefit. "I move this switch to LVLH. My pilot would do the same, and I call, 'Houston, Atlantis, roll program.'"

Most of the communications during launch are not in conventional English, and maybe that relieves some pressure.

It masks some high drama at high altitude. Altman and his six crewmates are being sent on one of NASA's most delicate missions. The Hubble, 350 miles out in orbit, is slowly dying, its batteries, gyroscopes and cameras badly in need of replacement. The shuttle Atlantis is currently scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Monday at 2:01 p.m. ET.

ABC News was given extraordinary access to the astronauts over a period of more than a year as they prepared to fly. They showed us how they train, invited us to their homes, and talked about the importance to them of the Hubble rescue.

The Hubble is doubtless the world's most famous telescope. It has given scientists and the public unprecedented views of the universe -- even helped determine how old the universe is.

"Every time we get a new discovery with Hubble, it is something that is mind-bending," said John Grunsfeld, one of the four space walkers on Atlantis' crew. "You just go, 'Wow!'"

Astronaut Scott Altman during a simulator run.

Grunsfeld will go on three space walks with fellow astronaut Drew Feustel. They will alternate with Mike Massimino and Mike Good. Greg Johnson is Altman's co-pilot. Megan McArthur will work the shuttle's robot arm.

Altman, Grunsfeld and Massimino are all veterans of previous flights, and have been on servicing missions to the Hubble before. They have been preparing for this flight since 2006.

They're a jocular bunch. Everyone has a nickname -- Scott Altman is "Scooter," Massimino becomes "Mass," and Mike Good takes on the Spanish "Bueno."

Massimino, a native New Yorker who lobbied to get biscotti on the ship's menu, showed us a notebook he kept during training for his previous flight -- complete with a photo of the Hubble in orbit.

"I figured the least I could do was make sure I was at the right satellite," he said.

But then they stop laughing. Their mission, set to run eleven days, is delicate and complicated. Fixing a $6 billion telescope in bulky space suits is a little like doing brain surgery in hockey gloves.

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