Sept. 30--ABOVE WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- Diving steeply from 28,000 feet toward the white dunes, a specially modified corporate jet pulled up sharply and then leveled out just above the desert floor Wednesday afternoon. Without touching down, it peeled off, regained altitude and repeated the maneuver numerous times.
Two NASA astronauts took turns in the cockpit's left seat, which has controls that duplicate those in the space shuttle. They practiced simulated landings in preparation for an 11-day shuttle mission -- one of the program's last -- scheduled for November. Unlike the jet, which can make numerous passes, the shuttle is a glider with no engines.
"The first (landing simulation) is the only one that counts because you only get one try with the real thing," said Steven Lindsey, STS-133 mission commander. It's a mindset Lindsey creates for himself during the training. On subsequent runs, he finds new approaches or uses different runways to make it another "first."
NASA uses Gulfstream GIIs, dubbed Shuttle Training Aircraft, to practice the landings. As the jet dives, its engines reverse thrust to slow the rush to Earth. Otherwise the jet would shake apart and crash into the ground. A computer program translates the pilot's input and manipulates the external control surfaces to replicate the shuttle's flying characteristics.
"It's the best simulator for what we do the overall feel and how the vehicle handles," said Eric Boe, the mission's pilot. "You feel like
you've been trained for just about every possibility you have."
Simulations include sudden weather changes and equipment failure. Each astronaut has performed hundreds of training runs, because nothing else flies like a shuttle.
Facing multiple demands -- a rocket at launch, an orbiting laboratory in space, a capsule blasted by intense heat during re-entry, and a glider back in Earth's atmosphere -- the craft is a study in compromise. Pilots say it flies like a brick with wings.
When landing, a shuttle drops at about a 20-degree angle, seven times steeper than a commercial airliner. The training aircraft takes the same angle and then levels out at about 32 feet above the runway, which simulates the pilot's eye level in a shuttle.
In the final moments before the shuttle touches down during an actual landing, "it's really seat of the pants," said Boe, who flew 55 combat missions over Iraq in an F-15C fighter jet.
Lindsey also flew fighter jets for the Air Force. Asked about the difference, he said, "The violence of the ride. (The shuttle) is nice and calm."
Boe said the only tension he feels during an actual mission is to do the best job he can. Training has prepared him, even for the unexpected, he said.
"You soak it in and enjoy it," said Boe, who has been on one space mission. "You're just trying to get the job done."
Lindsey and Boe make the training flights about twice a week. In October, as the mission nears, they will fly more often.
Although the White Sands Space Harbor runways are the last choice for actual shuttle landings, its airspace is the preferred location to practice landings because of the remote location, said Nicole Cloutier-LeMasters, a NASA spokeswoman. In the shuttle program's heyday, training flights took place nearly every day.
"At one point, we went 13 weeks without a day off," said Joe Miranda, a quality assurance representative contracted by NASA.
But all that is changing as the program winds down. President Barack Obama has announced his intent to shift the nation's focus for human spaceflight beyond Earth's orbit. He proposes that much of the work now done by the program be shifted to commercial ventures.
"It's one of those bittersweet flights," Boe said. "The big thing for me is just (saying goodbye) to the teams."
Lindsey, 50, thought he had retired from flying in 2006 after his fourth mission.
As chief of the astronaut office, his job was to choose others to fly. But when it appeared that the November flight to the international space station would be the program's last, he was recruited to command.
Since then, another space station mission was added and Congress is considering yet another.
When the program is terminated, Lindsey said, it is likely that about 300 NASA workers in Houston and 1,000 at the Kennedy Space Center will lose their jobs.
"So it's very hard," Lindsey said.
"With the program ending and an uncertain future, that makes it harder."
Boe, at 45, is considering his options.
"If I'm lucky enough, I'd like to get the opportunity to go fly in space again," he said. He mentions the Soviet shuttle, which will transport U.S. astronauts to the space station.
He will watch for an opportunity to fly a commercial space vehicle, "if that comes along."
For now, both are focused on the current mission. And Boe said the repeated practice landings do not get boring.
"You never feel like you've truly mastered it," he said, sitting in a passenger seat as the training aircraft started another dive. "It's really tough to make the perfect landing."
Chris Roberts may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6136.