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Flying in the STA
Hi, I'm Steve Siceloff, a Public Affairs writer here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I recently had the chance to fly with STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson, as he made one of his final practice landings in a Shuttle Training Aircraft, what we call an STA.
It's a Gulfsteam II business jet that NASA modified to fly like a space shuttle making its approach to landing.
That means it will tilt its nose down and soar toward the runway on a glide path seven times steeper than an airliner.
Basically, it's the ultimate rollercoaster ride, no rails attached.
The STA was waiting for us at the Shuttle Landing Facility. Fergie's made 1,400 dives at the runway in an STA. He gets inside first wearing his launch and entry suit, affectionately called the pumpkin suit he'll wear during a real landing. Then we climb in.
We fly to 28,000 feet above the three-mile-long Shuttle Landing Facility. There are a few clouds higher than us, but nothing below except air and the lighted outlines of Florida's space coast, the Vehicle Assembly Building rising majestically.
It took us nine minutes to get up here. It's only going to take a minute to get down.
The dive begins basically as soon as the instructor pilot puts the engines in reverse.
This is when you feel gravity loosen its hold, but not for long.
Fergie uses controls just like the shuttle's. He steers it along an invisible circle known as the HAC, the heading alignment cone, then continues on a straight path to the runway.
We're riding in the passenger part of the aircraft, behind the pilots and flight engineer.
We feel ourselves slide forward and then gravity really grabs us as the plane falls.
Fergie pulls up on the stick and everything is set for landing approach.
Lights at the end of the runway pass safely beneath the STA and Fergie gets his approach. The engines reset for normal flight and we head back up into the sky for another nine practice runs.
Fergie will make this same approach in Atlantis as he concludes the STS-135 mission, the last of the shuttle era.
Thanks for joining us, I'm Steve Siceloff.
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