Flying the STA: Landing Like the Shuttle

A Shuttle Training Aircraft plunges 28,000 feet in a little more than a minute when astronauts use it to practice a space shuttle approach. It’s as close as anyone can get to experiencing a shuttle landing without becoming an astronaut. And what a ride it is.

It takes nine minutes for the STA, a modified Gulfstream II business jet, to reach the altitude for the first run, a little lower than airlines typically cruise. STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson is at the shuttle-like controls in the left-hand seat, ready to begin his simulated landing as soon as shuttle veteran Ken Cockrell, flying as the instructor pilot in the right seat, gives him the plane.

This mission is expected to be the last flight of its kind during the shuttle era to host media representatives. From the beginning of the program, journalists of all stripes have ridden with shuttle crews to see what a landing entails. We board at dusk and as we climb up to altitude, the horizon is still lit to the west, with a glow of yellow and orange on top of a blue haze.

There are a few clouds higher than us, but nothing below except air and the lighted outlines of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the Vehicle Assembly Building rising majestically. The south end of the shuttle runway is lit with xenon spotlights. That's our target on this first of 10 dives this evening.

Cockrell flips a few switches and the STA's engines go into reverse, the main gear lowers, and flaps on the wings open. A computer in the aircraft is setting the rules now, making the sleek jet fly like a 110-ton shuttle.

"It's a fairly clean airplane and it likes to glide and it's got good thrust," Cockrell told us before the flight. "So we have to ruin all that to make it fly like a shuttle."

All systems "go," the plane feels like it has leveled off. That doesn't last.

"You've got it," Cockrell tells Ferguson. "I got it," comes the response before the nose points down.

Gravity reduces, grows, settles and then pulls down again in a matter of seconds. Your head feels light for a moment, then blood rushes up to it. You feel your blood sink down to your feet with the next change. Looking out the windows, your eyes show you scenes they've never seen before, such as a horizon tilted more than seems reasonable. The aircraft is diving at 18 to 21 degrees now, seven times steeper than an airliner's approach.

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