Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We Fly The Space Shuttle (Simulator, That Is)

What’s it like to reenter the atmosphere from Earth’s orbit?

I always seem to be in the wrong time warp. I was born too late to fly fighters in WWII and too late for the space program. Like so many other young pilots, I desperately wanted to make it to space, but that was not to be.

Back in the early ’80s, I applied for the “Journalist in Space” program and was advised I’d made the first cut, which narrowed the field from something like 20,000 applicants to about 2,000. Unfortunately, when teacher Christa McAuliffe was lost in the explosion of Challenger in 1986, that was the end of all programs to fly a civilian into space. Later, I wrote to NASA twice, requesting a chance to fly the Space Shuttle simulator, and was turned down both times because of the heavy flight schedule. NASA was busy training pilots for the real thing, and there was little time remaining for journalists.

About a year ago, however, I met former astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson, and mentioned my dream of perhaps someday flying the Space Shuttle simulator. Gibson is a not-so-old pro in the astronaut business. In addition to making five flights in the shuttle and spending over a month in space, Gibson was chief of the astronaut office in the mid-’90s, and he felt there might be a chance for my flight, now that the shuttle program was winding down.

There’s only one motion-based Shuttle simulator, and it’s at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Though NASA is no longer training new crews, the agency keeps the sim up and running for recurrency training and emergency-procedure practice. My opportunity to fly what may be the ultimate simulator came in late June. Editor Jessica Ambats and I traveled to Houston, and astronaut Gibson flew down from his home in Tennessee to oversee my experience and make certain I didn’t break anything.

In Houston, Gibson introduced me to Flight Director Paul Dye. Like Gibson, Dye is a confirmed aviation nut. In addition to serving as flight director on 37 shuttle flights, he’s a member of EAA with a Van’s RV-8 completed and an RV-3 under construction. He agreed to monitor my efforts on the Shuttle simulator and was the perfect host at NASA. Dye is probably one of the most knowledgeable and proficient sim aviators at NASA, and his advice and counsel was invaluable.

Gibson explained that the sim is very accurate in reproducing the response of the actual Space Shuttle, and he should know. Like all other astronauts who train as pilots, Gibson is a former military fighter pilot with thousands of hours in jet fighters. He’s made literally thousands of approaches in the full-motion base simulator and in NASA’s highly modified Gulfstream G-2s, better known as the Shuttle Training Aircraft (inevitably, the STA). NASA operates four of the 1970s-era jets, all heavily modified to simulate the Shuttle’s brick-like glidepath during the last 35,000 feet of approach.

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