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.
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