HOUSTON, April 18, 2010 -- Heads-up! A spectacular site will be streaking overhead if you are lucky enough to live along the landing path planned for the space shuttle Discovery.
Observers will have a rare opportunity to see and hear the space shuttle as it streaks home from low Earth orbit to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday morning.
The shuttle will cross North America near Vancouver, British Columbia, then will pass over Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, then Jacksonville Fla., before banking south to the shuttle landing field.
This landing pattern is called a descending node -- normally space shuttles returning from the space station approach from the southwest -- which is an ascending node. But the circumstances of this mission worked in favor of the descending node. By landing in a descending pattern, the crew gets more time in space, which adds up to about 30 hours to get more done during a mission.
Who will be able to see it? From British Columbia to Tennessee along the landing track, from Tennessee to Florida, there will be too much daylight.
What time will this happen: Discovery will hit British Columbia, Canada, at an altitude of 243,00 feet at about 8:20 ET. It then will cross the U.S. in less than 30 minutes, landing at 8:48 ET.
What will you see? An orange streak with a bright white plasma trail.
What will you hear? A double sonic boom about a minute and a half after the shuttle passes overhead.
Bryan Lunney, the flight director in charge of the landing, says the darker it is, the better the chances of seeing the plasma trail.
"The orbiter will be streaking by from northwest to southeast. People who don't know what they are looking at will think they are looking at a meteor," says one observer who has seen a shuttle cross overhead.
This mission, designated STS 131, is the fourth to last scheduled mission. Cmder. Alan Poindexter headed the crew of seven for a 10-day mission to supply and maintain the International Space Station. He says it's a demanding schedule, with the crew working 18 hours a day for two weeks.
This descending landing, Poindexter says, lets the crew get more sleep.
Landing Cross Country Has Many Benefits, Including a View Up From Below
"It turns out in order to get to this landing pattern, you need to add about four or five hours to your mission. So your sleep shifts to the right; it's like you are going west the whole time during the mission," Poindexter says. "It's also a little bit easier to stay up later than it is to go to bed earlier. Any frequent traveler will tell you it is easier to go west than it is to go east."
He is excited about the prospect of landing cross country.
"From a flying perspective, there really isn't a whole lot of difference. It may be dark, but you can it bet it will be spectacular," Poindexter says.
STS 120, commanded by Pam Melroy, used this landing path in 2007, the first time since the Columbia accident in 2003. Columbia fell apart in 2003 as it crossed the western United States for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center. Columbia was lost and its crew of seven died after the orbiter fell apart on re-entry when its heat shield was damaged.
The analysis by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board showed the breakup began when Columbia slowed from mach 20 to 18 as it crossed California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, scattering debris in its path. Most of the debris fell in Texas, and remarkably, no one on the ground was injured.
After Columbia, NASA had second thoughts about flying a shuttle overland again.
NASA has learned, since the Columbia accident, how to detect damage to the space shuttle in orbit. It inspects the orbiter right after launch, and again before it lands, so the Mission Management Team has cleared Discovery to land at the Kennedy Space Center, weather permitting.
Discovery and her crew will have logged 5,813,261 miles if the orbiter lands on the first try Monday morning. The clock starts ticking again for Discovery after it touches down, because Discovery, the most flown orbiter, has the bittersweet honor of flying the last space shuttle mission, STS 133, in September.