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NASA's Shuttle Mission Simulator

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Outside of SMS

Say What, Now?

If you have ever wondered what kind of training astronauts get before they actually participate in missions, well, I can’t really help you with that. But I did get to fly the fancy simluator that prospective shuttle pilots use to practice.

Let’s just say, I know a guy.

The Shuttle Mission Simulator

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SMS Actuators



This motion-base simulator is built on actuators that allow the vehicle to move as you move the controls. It allows for shaking and movement as well as tilting 90 degrees for take off, to add to the realism of the activity. I am not sure how, but I really felt as if I was experiencing elevated G-force during take off.




During the entire practice flight, a coach pilot is in the co-pilot’s seat to give advice and instructions on what to do during the exercise. He actually performs this duty when the real astronauts are in training as well. He was full of little tidbits of information. But the thing I remember most about him was him saying, repeatedly, during landing “Keep it straight, and slide it on in.” I was vaguely troubled each time I heard him repeat that.

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Our Guide, Mr Co-Pilot

A simulator flight has three phases:

  1. Take off
  2. Abort Launch
  3. Landing

The reason for the Abort launch step is so the pilot can experience launch and landing in the same exercise. The abort step recreates a problem about 4-5 minutes into launch requiring the shuttle to bank and return to the landing strip. Then it is just a normal landing routine.

The simulator is a complete recreation of the cockpit of the shuttle, right down to the seatbelts and headsets. The windows are filled with computer generated scenery that changes during the flight. As you get higher, you are treated to an overhead view of Florida and everything resolves into more and more detail as you get closer. Very cool.

Jackson, Shuttle Pilot

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We’re going in.

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Strapped In… as a passenger. Meh.

Now, if you get the chance to do this (unlikely, as it will soon follow the shuttle program into oblivion), don’t make the mistake that my coworker and I did. We flew the simulator with one other rider, a woman, that also got to come along for the ride. We both decided that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to let her go first. Besides, that way we could see what it all entailed so we didn’t embarrass ourselves when our turn came around. Little did we know that the simluation only goes through the take-off sequence once. All we got to do was land the thing. Don’t get me wrong, even being in the cockpit for launch was awesome, but she spent like 25 minutes flying the SMS while I only got a measley 10.

Flying the shuttle is suprisingly simple. You have to deal with pitch, roll and yaw, all with the control column. The shuttle computer periodically corrects for yaw automatically throughout the flight. It was pretty much like every flight simulator you have ever played.

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Fun Fact: Most astronauts are not 6’0" and 220 lbs!



I figure anyone who has played any kind of flight video game could successfully land the shuttle safely under normal conditions*. The whole act of landing consists of keeping, first, a square within a circle and then, once you are closer to actually landing, keeping a diamond between two triangles on the heads up display. This is primarily because the onboard computer calculates where you need to be, so you just have to make sure you stay within those limits. There is surprisingly little space in the cockpit of the shuttle. That’s gotta be a real comfortable position to be in for a multiple day journey through space.

One interesting thing about the shuttle is that there is no dedicated steering device once the shuttle is on the ground. All steering must be accomplished through the use of two break pedals (one for the right and one for the left). The goal, after landing, it to have the fuselage lined up directly over the dashed lines of the run way. This turned out to be far more difficult than landing the shuttle in the first place.




You may find yourself asking, “sure, hotshot, but how did you really do?”
Well, not only booya, but super booya:

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Shuttle Simulator Performance Readout

If you are wondering what all of these numbers mean, well, the short form is that I am awesome and ready to be a shuttle pilot. But it really means that I landed the shuttle within the parameters to be considered a “safe” landing. Not necessarily a good landing, but a safe one. Needless to say, it was an awesome experience.

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Ah. So proud. I done landed the sucker.

*Real Training

Remember back there, when I said “under normal conditions”? Well, one of the SMS managers was along for our flight and he landed the shuttle last. The guys in the control room had a bit more fun with him. The scenario he had to land in was called “Stormy, Stormy Night”. Besides having no outside visibility, and a fierce crosswind to deal with throughout the approach, they decided to blow all four of the the shuttles tires out upon touch down and, losing control, the guy rolled us right into a ditch and a fiery death (recreated nicely in the cockpit window displays). We were informed that real training requires a successful landing under those conditions. So maybe I need to wait just a little longer before submitting my name to be a shuttle pilot.

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Information This article was edited after publication by the author on 13 Dec 2009. View changes.
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1 Vote  - +
Space Camp by VnutZ

Wait … you mean it wasn’t like Space Camp where a rogue robot enabled you to actually take off and operate the shuttle?

Either way, I’m jealous as hell. That’s awesome.

0 Votes  - +
wow by teco84

Wish I had the chance.
I am incredibly jealous.

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