How to Land a Space Shuttle

Engineers on the ground will not be sure until several months of checkout are finished, but the repairs appear to have gone smoothly. Some of the spacewalks were exhausting -- a couple ran as long as eight hours -- but the astronauts left no job unfinished.

Pilot Lessons

Scott Altman was set to give me a second simulator ride; there had been some minor glitches the first time around.

"Hey, make him let you land it!" called Massimino as we went off to do it.

Back at the controls, Altman gave me small jobs to do; he pointed me to a keypad on the control panel where I pressed OPS 51 PRO without being quite sure why (it's a command to the shuttle's computers to load just-in-case software if a launch is aborted).

Suddenly, we were 50,000 feet over that video-game rendition of Florida, coming in for a landing.

"Push those two buttons that are marked CSS," said Altman, "which is Control Stick Steering. And now you are responsible for flying."

At first it didn't look very hard. You look at a simple display projected in the window in front of you. A tiny green circle represents the shuttle as seen from behind, and all you have to do is move the controls to keep the circle inside a small green square, which shows where you're going.

The simulator operators were clearly going easier on me than they would on Altman. The weather was clear and the winds were calm. Altman said he's done a thousand simulator runs, and by tradition, only the last one before launch is done with no made-up malfunctions.

Hard Landing

The shuttle doesn't fly home, it glides -- or rather, it falls gracefully. Landing is hard, after all.

"Push the nose over a little bit," said Altman as I peered out the window. "Start the nose up, keep it coming up. ..."

We were plummeting. At the last minute -- Altman later insisted he wasn't helping, but I suspect he was being diplomatic -- the shuttle's nose came up and we came soaring over the imaginary runway, 60 feet up.

"Pull the nose up just a little bit ... good check -- we touched down, bounced a little bit."

Bounced? There are brake pedals beneath each pilot's feet. I couldn't find them. Altman took over.

"Looks like we're going to stop -- right at the end of the runway," said Altman.

And we did. But the shuttle runway is three miles long, and I stopped with 50 feet to spare.

"I don't believe I didn't total this thing," I said.

"You did a nice job," said Altman.

Then he added, more candidly, "Mission Control would have been just a little excited watching us."

"I'm going to let you command the next mission," I said. And he laughed.

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