Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Heavy Glider

An intimate look at the Shuttle Orbiter

I’m one fortunate aviator. My professional career has coincided with the 30-year flight history of the Space Shuttle program. Starting with NASA as an engineering student (with a commercial pilot’s license), I grew up with the program—learning the procedures and preparing myself for the job of flight director, for which I was selected in 1993. While my responsibility is for overall crew safety and mission success, my true love is for this magnificent flying machine known as the Shuttle Orbiter. In both complexity and capability, it’s unmatched in the history of human flying machines. Built on the knowledge gained through generations of experimental aircraft, it’s the culmination of all that we know about flying a winged, maneuvering craft through the earth’s atmosphere. It’s the legacy of everyone who has ever dreamed, built or flown an airplane—the sum total of the aeronautical knowledge of millions.

The Orbiter is amazing to a pilot in almost every way. The highest and fastest flying machine (by far) that has ever been built, it leaps off the pad in Florida and is through Mach 1 in less than a minute. Effectively out the top of the atmosphere in another minute, it pitches over (inverted, so that you can see the horizon), leveling at about 350,000 feet to accelerate to orbital velocity. At the five-minute mark we roll heads-up, and if you look out the left window, you’ll see Chesapeake Bay going by. When the main engines cut off at about eight and a half minutes, the same glance will show you the tip of Long Island and Cape Cod. Welcome to orbit! If, for some reason, you can’t get to orbit due to systems failures, you can make a “short” cross-country trip and land in Spain less than 30 minutes after departure. Once in orbit, a complete revolution around the earth takes just 90 minutes.

Flying the Shuttle on orbit is mostly a matter of typing the correct numbers into the correct display and hitting the “Enter” key, but it’s still magnificent to watch as the distance to a target—such as the International Space Station (ISS)—closes during a rendezvous. Orbital mechanics are much more puzzling than a gusty crosswind but fortunately more predictable, so the computers crunch the numbers, and the pilots make minor correction burns as we close within a few hundred feet. From that point on, it’s once again a piloting skill—lining up the docking targets and using the maneuvering thrusters to ease the Orbiter into the docking gear on the Station. The departure can be equally stunning, as it generally features a fly-around of the ISS to photograph this human outpost on the final frontier.

While the ascent and orbit phases of a Shuttle flight are absolutely amazing, for an aviator, it’s hard to beat Entry and Landing. I must confess—I love landing airplanes. It’s simply a wonderful moment, where precision is rewarded with that feeling as the wheels spin up and you know that you’ve nailed it. I grew up in Cubs, graduated to the common GA birds and now enjoy the wonderful world of high-performance experimentals. But nothing compared to the first time I sat at the controls of the Space Shuttle simulator, hanging motionless at 10,000 feet, lined up with the runway just a couple of miles ahead. I knew that when the operator told the software to “run,” I would be on the ground in about 45 seconds. The 15,000x300-foot runway actually looked fairly normal from that height, and the final approach speed of 300 knots makes it even more so. It’s not until you come across the fence that you get the amazing ground rush of speed that comes from flying a beveled brick with a lift-to-drag ratio of about 4.


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