How to Land a Space Shuttle

Ned space

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

It was a year before Atlantis' flight. The scene: NASA's so-called motion-base simulator for space shuttle crews at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the front-left seat rehearsing liftoffs and touchdowns, was Scott Altman, the commander of this month's mission to rescue the Hubble Space Telescope. In the front-right seat 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: Astronauts release Hubble into orbit

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.

'Houston, Atlantis...'

VIDEO: Final spacewalk for Atlantis astronauts

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.

"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 have spent the last two weeks repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, whose gyroscopes, batteries and cameras were gradually failing in the extremes of space.

They now say they believe they have given the telescope another 5-10 years of useful life.

One milestone remains: landing safely. The astronauts are scheduled to make their first attempt on Friday morning, though the weather forecast at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is iffy at best.

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.

"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!'"

How to Fly a Space Shuttle

Grunsfeld went on three space walks with fellow astronaut Drew Feustel. Mike Massimino and Mike Good did two others. Megan McArthur helped them with the shuttle's robot arm. Greg Johnson was Altman's co-pilot.

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. Fixing a $6 billion telescope in bulky space suits is a little like doing brain surgery in hockey gloves.

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