How to Land a Space Shuttle

Flying lessons, from the commander of the Hubble rescue mission.

May 21, 2009, 9:32 AM

Johnson Space Center, Houston, May 21, 2009 — -- 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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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