Friday, July 22, 2011


[My hotel had connectivity issues, not my laptop. Phew!]

[This is a crude version; I'll clean it up and add pictures after I fix my laptop's connectivity issue.]

Sometime a couple of weeks ago I got a tweet announcing the STS135 Tweetup. STS135 was the NASA designator for the final mission, and a tweetup is a social networking phenomenon where people who know each other online through twitter gather for an event. I registered on the website. NASA took 150 of the rumored 5000 applicants to the launch.

Not me.

NASA opened a few slots for the landing, and this time I got picked! I hesitated a little: it would be expensive, tiring, and tough on my family to have me away again so soon. But I had to go!

So Tuesday I drove down to Salt Lake and flew to Florida. Wednesday I toured the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex; I'll write about that separately, except to mention the highlight, a Saturn V. Wednesday night I met two of the "tweeps", Marcus and Lisa, for dinner. There was something remarkable here that occured the whole time I was here in Florida: people from all walks of life drawn together by their fascination with spaceflight. We were like the people in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, drawn to Devil's Tower to see the landing. But this was for real!

Six of us met in front of the closed hotel lobby at 0245 and carpooled to Kennedy. We left early, expecting traffic, and arrived at our badging spot long before the NASA folks. The badging location was a small cinder-block building whose fixtures came from the era of Project Mercury. I asked around but nobody knew its history.

Our bus showed up and we boarded, every seat full. People were brisling with camera gear, but the NASA reps, Stephanie and Beth, suggested that we not take pictures because the whole thing would happen so fast. NASA has better photographers than me.

NASA provided an orbiter processing engineer named Chris (didn't catch his last name) who described the landing process, between-launch activities, plans for the decommissioned orbiters, and the like. I was familiar with a lot of this due to my voracious reading, but it was great to hear it from someone who had done it.

As you know, I have mixed feelings about simulations, but I can't access the shuttle or the Shuttle Training Aircraft, so I had been simulating the approach and landing using F-SIM, an iPad app that is reputed to be quite accurate. Atlantis would approach from the southwest and fly a Heading Alignment Cone to land on runway 15, and F-SIM allows a similar approach, complete with recordings of the dialog between the crew and Johnson Space Center ("Houston"). I know from watching the PLT camera view through the HUD during landings that the final portion is very realistic.

After Atlantis's deorbit burn the bus started taking us to the airfield. There was a little bit of a traffic jam but we got to the field in plenty of time. We were near midfield, and I had to make a quick choice, close or high? I chose close and stood at the rope.

Here's a google map screen capture, showing where we were on the field. Large screens were set up showing NASA-TV and we could hear the dialog between Atlantis and Houston. (This isn't special, I do this at home. But I wasn't at home, was I?)

It was before dawn, which was a good thing and a bad thing. Since Atlantis and the ISS were in the same orbit, it passed overhead about 9 minutes before the landing. I've watched the ISS dozens of times, but somehow this view was special. I was the first person in my part of the crowd to spot it, and everyone clapped.

The voice from Atlantis was calm. "It looks like we just passed over the Yucatan Peninsula," it said, "We wish more of you could see this."

"Atlantis, Houston," came the calm voice of the CapCom, "We show you crossing the West Coast of Florida."

Even astronauts get lost.


The double sonic boom announced that Atlantis had decelerated below Mach 1. It wasn't as loud as I had expected, but it was shaarper, more like a piar of cannon blasts. We all strained our eyes to see it passing overhead in the night sky.

This is where the sim came into play. "Atlantis, Houston, you're on at the 180." Just like the simulator app! This meant that Atlantis was on downwind, at proper altitude and airspeed, a few mile north of KTTS. I knew where to look. Nothing.

"Atlantis, Houston, you are on at the 90." OK, they're descending through 16,000. I know what they see.

"Field in sight, Houston."

What? What? The crowd around me didn't get this, and I explained.

Now they were at about 13,000 and turning final. The HUD was showing them an extended centerline, and they were steering off PAPIs calibrated to their steep glideslope.

We saw nothing. Everyone seemed to lean toward the final approach course. It was like the final minute of a tied Stanley Cup final.

"Pre-flare." OK, they're passing 2000 AGL.

Still nothing.

Suddenly a shadow passed through the floodlights illuminating the runway. I shouted something incomprehensible, and felt the electricity passing through the crowd.

"Main gear touchdown."

Still nothing in sight! The crowd was cheering.

The drag chute appeared above the bushes, and all of a sudden THERE IT WAS, still moving fast. As it passed out of sight the drag chute stayed attached, and by the sim that means that they were still moving at more than 100 knots.

This felt familiar, but I can't explain why. It reminded me of a very low approach (1/4 mile) I'd flown in a King Air, which wasn't scary until I saw the 1000 foot markers at the far end. Gotta stop!

It's a cliché, but the sight was awe-inspiring.

We reluctantly drifted back onto the bus as dawn broke, people stopping on the stair for a last look at the tower and the airfield. The orbiter was out of sight. We rode back to our cars. Everyone was bittersweet: we had seen an amazing thing, but a magical era had ended on our watch. We lingered in the parking lot, took pictures of our new friends, and headed back to the hotel to try to get some sleep.

I don't know about the others, but I couldn't sleep.

But the shuttles will.

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At July 26, 2011 at 11:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great rendition, Jim! Sounds as if those around you couldn't have been coached by a better pilot. SGS


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