- What’s It Like to Fly the Space Shuttle? We Find Out
As a person who really enjoys flying airplanes, I never thought I would ever say this, but flying a simulator can be as much fun as flying the real thing. Of course it helps when the simulator is a replica of the space shuttle cockpit at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
On a recent assignment for AOPA Pilot magazine, I arrived early for an interview with Ken Ham, commander on the shuttle flight scheduled to lift off on May 14. While I waited, an engineer fired up the simulator where we were going to conduct the interview and let me make some practice approaches.
Known as the Shuttle Engineering Simulator, or SES, it’s not the full motion simulator used for full flight profile training, but rather a fixed-base simulator used by astronauts and engineers for both training and testing changes that will be made on the shuttle. The SES is very similar to the e-cab used by Boeing and other aircraft makers to test systems before putting them on the real thing.
Whether it was a change to a guidance computer, or an upgrade to the software controlling the nine glass panel displays, many of the improvements made to the shuttle over the years were tested right here. Shuttle commanders and pilots (commander is in left seat, pilot in the right) also use the SES for training, especially early on in their preparation.
The wood on the floor in front of left seat has been worn smooth by thousands of heels sliding back and forth controlling the rudder pedals over the years. With the news that the shuttle will likely continue flying into 2011, instead of being retired later this year as previously scheduled, the SES may yet see a few more heels.
Sadly, even with the extension, this was as close as I would probably get to my astronaut dreams. Still I was eager to try flying the heaviest and most expensive glider ever built.
Computers control much of the flight until the last 4-5 minutes before landing. So I was given the chance to fly several approaches into the Kennedy Space Center, landing on runway 15. My flights began with the shuttle heading east towards the Atlantic passing over KSC at 50,000 feet and 240 knots (equivalent air speed or KEAS).
It turns out the shuttle is a terrible glider. I don’t have a lot of glider experience, but I know that pitching nose down at 20 degrees and a descent rate of more than 10,000 feet per minute isn’t considered good. An airliner typically follows a 3-degree glide path when approaching the runway. According to Commander Ham, this is probably the biggest challenge facing the average pilot.
“The sight picture is a lot different,” he said, “but it’s a pretty easy task for an experienced pilot to make a safe landing with just a little bit of information,” Commander Ham said, adding that a perfect landing is very difficult.
Of course, like many things, it might be easy when everything is going right. It’s the emergencies and unexpected scenarios that require the bulk of the training.
“Then things get a bit more difficult. It starts to challenge your flying skills a bit more,” Commander Ham noted, saying it is similar to flying other aircraft where you train for emergencies. “It’s just another flying job.”
I paused and debated to myself whether or not to challenge that last point. Never mind.
Back in the sim, I passed through 40,000 feet and got ready to start my turn around the heading alignment cone or HAC, which is a guidance system that allows pilots to follow a circular descent path to the runway. As I continued the turn, I could see the Florida coast out the left window, and out of habit, I started looking for the runway.
My airspeed was around 290 knots as I turned to line up with runway 15 and pass through 12,000 feet. The shuttle is remarkably stable to fly as I suppose would be the case with any brick featuring stubby wings. Moving the stick is a bit unusual because it requires only small wrist movements.
Perhaps most interesting is that it pivots in the middle of the palm for pitch (controlling nose up or nose down). Commander Ham explained later that this is to prevent inadvertent movement during launch. “It’s a beautiful design, you can fly uphill at 3g’s with your hand on the stick and nothing happens,” he said.
So far the approach hadn’t been too difficult. In front of me there was a heads-up display (HUD) with airspeed, altitude and other key flight parameters. Most importantly there was a flight-path marker and guidance diamond. These navigation aids make it rather easy for a pilot to find the way to the runway and line up, assuming that everything is working. You just keep the flight-path marker on the guidance diamond and the runway should eventually appear in front of you.
On final approach, a pair of triangles rose from the bottom of the HUD when it was time to begin the flare, which slows the rate of descent. In a typical small airplane, a pilot might begin the flare at 10 to 30 feet above the runway traveling around 60 knots. In the shuttle, you start the flare at 2,000 feet and 300 knots. That part would take some getting used to.
“This is the critical part,” Commander Ham explained. “At 2,000 feet, if you don’t start pulling up, you’re going to die.”
So I followed the guidance on the HUD and touched down the main gear with a squeak at 200 knots with the nose still pointing rather high in the air. After what seeemed like a very long time, the nose gear eventually came down with a thud and I rolled safely to a stop.
A space shuttle commander has countless landings in simulators at the Johnson Space Center, and at least a thousand simulated landings in NASA’s Shuttle Training Aircraft. I realize I’m a long way from having the skills necessary to fly the orbiter. But if I were ever stowed away in the cargo bay and the announcement came over the speakers, “Is there a pilot on board?” I would at least have a chance of getting the world’s heaviest glider on the ground safely.
Images: Jason Paur/Wired.com
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