The Return from Space
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery are preparing to return to Earth tomorrow morning. NPR's David Kestenbaum spoke with a veteran astronaut about what re-entry feels like. He reports from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
Engineers praised the shuttle as an engineering triumph, a launch vehicle that is also a space ship and a re-entry craft. But the shuttle has also been called a brick with wings. It has to slow down from speeds of over 25 times the speed of sound, from over 15,000 miles an hour, to a full stop on the runway. Scott Horowitz has flown into space four times and come down four times. About an hour and a half before the descent begins, the crew puts on lightweight orange jumpsuits and does some final tidying up.
Mr. SCOTT HOROWITZ (Astronaut): You're turning off the systems. You have to shut down the space potty, as we call it.
KESTENBAUM: The space potty is?
Mr. HOROWITZ: The space potty is the toilet we use on the space shuttle.
KESTENBAUM: At about 3:40 AM Eastern time, weather permitting, Discovery will fire its engines for several minutes. It does this over the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia. The burn slows the shuttle down so that its orbit meets the atmosphere. The astronauts gradually feel gravity again.
Mr. HOROWITZ: And one of the demonstrations is you can hold up, like, your pencil or something, and normally it's been floating for the last week in space--hasn't moved at all. And now when you let it go, it just very slowly starts to drop towards the floor. And you feel a little bit of Gs, and you can tell when you move your head that you start feeling--your inner ears start to react to gravity again. But it's very smooth, and there's no real sudden onset or force or Gs that you feel.
KESTENBAUM: The shuttle basically falls from orbit. The heat shields experience temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mr. HOROWITZ: You'll notice, looking out the window, the sky starts to turn a different color. It turns kind of a light pinkish color and, then it gets kind of a deeper pinkish red, and then it turns red and orange. And what you realize is you're looking from the inside of a fireball outward. You're inside the air that's being ripped apart as you're re-entering the atmosphere. Very little feeling, no shaking, no vibration, but you just see the heat that's being generated by the space shuttle entering the atmosphere.
KESTENBAUM: The shuttle descends like an overweight glider. Commander Eileen Collins does the steering toward the runway. During final approach the shuttle drops 20 times faster than a commercial airline. LeRoy Cain will be directing the re-entry from mission control in Houston. He says the descent doesn't make him nervous exactly, but he does get butterflies in his stomach.
Mr. LEROY KANE (Re-entry Director): If I came in to do an entry and landing on thir flight or any flight and I didn't have butterflies in my stomach, I'd probably turn right around and go back outside and find somebody else to do the job. There's a lot of things to think about, there's a lot of things to worry about, and that's what I get paid to do--is to worry. And I do it a lot.
KESTENBAUM: The entire descent takes about 55 minutes. Once on the runway, the astronauts have one more obstacle: standing up. Scott Horowitz.
Mr. HOROWITZ: When you first come back from space, you have to readapt from the zero gravity. And the first thing you notice when you're sitting in your seat is it's hard to get out of your seat because it's hard to lift your legs. It feels like they're sitting in concrete pants or something; that your legs feel like they weigh a ton. And so you kind of drag your legs out of the seat, and it's hard to walk. Your muscles have atrophied. You're just kind of feeling weak.
KESTENBAUM: Some astronauts feel dizzy for a while, but Horowitz says he was usually fine. A couple hours after one landing, he went for a run on the beach. Discovery's expected to touch down here in the dark around a quarter to 5 in the morning Eastern time. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.