One More Ride On The Space Shuttle (Simulator) After 30 years, two tragedies, and 130 successful missions that seemed to make space flight almost routine, the shuttle program is coming to a close. What's next in human space flight for America is unclear.
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One More Ride On The Space Shuttle (Simulator)

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One More Ride On The Space Shuttle (Simulator)

One More Ride On The Space Shuttle (Simulator)

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #1: We lost our ability with the FPC-3, so what we got now on Tedris(ph) is what we got.

Unidentified Man #2: And over, Houston, that is correct. FPC-3...

SIMON: Houston, we have a problem. The U.S. space shuttle program is shutting down. After 30 years, two tragedies and 130 successful missions, it seemed to make space flight almost routine. The shuttle program is coming to a close, and what's next in manned space flight for America is unclear.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #1: ...ETA, it's going to be at half-speed, and you're going to see that discrete on number one.

SIMON: Astronauts prepare for contingencies, like when a fuel cell on a spacecraft conks out.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, that's not good. That is not good.

SIMON: Notice that astronauts don't actually say, Houston, we have a problem, but coolly proceed into a sequence of actions to conserve power.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #1: OK. And I've also got all the nominal stuff for now.

Unidentified Man #3: OK. Have (unintelligible) loss of second fuel cell power right there.

SIMON: This is the command crew of Endeavor STS-134, scheduled for liftoff in February 2011. Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Greg Johnson - known as Box(ph) -Michael Fink - known as Spanky - and Roberto Vittori. I'm sitting just behind the pilots in what they call the sim, an exact mockup of the flight deck that never leaves the ground but shakes, rattles and rolls with some of the sensations, sounds and sights of space flight.

Control room engineers exult in throwing problems at the astronauts the way monkeys fling things from trees.

Unidentified Man #4: FPC-3 bye, bye.

SIMON: This is how the engineers reacted when they killed a fuel cell and heard the astronauts groan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Their role is to design what amounts to stump-the-astronaut scenarios.

Mr. STEVEN MESSERSMITH(ph) (Flight Director): We sit - we would go in an office and we'll say, OK, what do we want to do today, you know. And then we - do you want to put this (unintelligible) you want them to do this, you want to do this?

SIMON: Steven Messersmith is the flight director of this sim session -essentially, the director of an improvisational drama, which challenges the flight crew with every dire contingency they can concoct. He chews on an apple while the astronauts try to save their craft from simulated doom.

Mr. MESSERSMITH: I mean, they have a checklist that has all the different single failures. So what we do is we exercise those malfunctions, you know, and put them in different combinations so that one of the things they have to do in kind of - what would be the next worst type of failure that would come up?

SIMON: This run-through lasts almost two hours and ends with a successful landing, despite the onslaught of problems. The crew joins their tormentors in the control room for a debriefing, in which all that fly by are the initials and acronyms by which they know every piece of equipment and procedure.

Unidentified Man #6: I've gotten everything except the ACCU-2(ph).

Unidentified Man #7: Which you, yeah, that went wrong so...

Unidentified Man #6: Exactly - so you fixed it. But everything else, we were already committed.

SIMON: And they settle accounts like true men.

Unidentified Man #5: So in summary, I think you owe a beer. You owe him a beer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: The sim runs in a large, light, white, cool room that simmers with machines. Commander Mark Kelly invited me to join him for a test ride in the replica Endeavor, which hums with power and blinks with lights.

Is there one button that I shouldn't I shouldn't absolutely push under any circumstance whatsoever?

Mr. MARK KELLY (Commander, Space Shuttle Endeavor): That is absolutely true. And what color do you think that button would be?

SIMON: Red?

Mr. KELLY: OK. And where is the red button?

SIMON: Right there (unintelligible) oh, that right there.

Mr. KELLY: Right on top of this thing.

SIMON: In front of me. OK. Never push that, right?

Mr. KELLY: Don't push that.

SIMON: OK.

Mr. KELLY: What that does, it'll shut down these four computers, and it'll cause this one to start controlling the vehicle.

SIMON: Oh, OK.

Commander Kelly decides that we'll go through a simulated liftoff. The sim rocks back 90 degrees so that we're on our backs, counting down to liftoff. Through the windows, we see the night sky we're about to pierce.

Mr. KELLY: We're pointing straight up. It's nighttime.

SIMON: Those are the stars.

Mr. KELLY: I'm going to configure these displays how they would be for liftoff.

SIMON: OK.

Mr. KELLY: Mine's like that.

SIMON: And we wait for liftoff.

Mr. KELLY: This is the part where you start, 'cause there's actually not a lot to do right now.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: Just a lot of thinking.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: Like, is this really a good idea? So at about this point, the onboard computers take control of the whole vehicle. And if everything goes well in ascent, we actually don't do a lot except monitor what happens.

SIMON: OK, yeah.

Mr. KELLY: But when things do go wrong, there's a lot of stuff that we can do to intervene.

SIMON: Yeah. That's happened to you?

Mr. KELLY: I've had an issue on every ascent.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. KELLY: Look at the clock. Seven, six seconds.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: The main engines are going to start. You'll see these tapes come up right here.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: Two, one, liftoff. Watch the tower go by.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: We're going straight up. Now, I want you to say, Houston, Endeavor, roll program.

SIMON: Houston, Endeavor - should I click it?

Mr. KELLY: Yeah.

SIMON: Houston, Endeavor should I click it?

Mr. KELLY: Yeah. SIMON: Houston, Endeavor roll program.

Mr. KELLY: And then the cap-com would say, roger, roll, Endeavor.

SIMON: Oh my gosh. We're rocketing towards those stars, aren't we?

Mr. KELLY: Yup. At about 30 seconds, we're 30 seconds into the flight, you see the main engines are going to throttle back a little bit...

SIMON: This is, no doubt, tame stuff. Commander Kelly will ride Endeavor for real into space for his fourth mission. The shaking and sounds, the sights flashing by are convincing enough to make your pulse race.

Even a ride aboard the simulator reminds you that there have been a couple of real-life tragedies in the space shuttle program. As the astronauts train, they sometimes confront a problem that defeats them in the simulator. As Commander Kelly says...

Mr. KELLY: Yeah, not frequently. And you don't want to typically make a mistake and do that because it generates all kinds of reports.

SIMON: Yeah, of course.

Mr. KELLY: I did have - a couple of weeks ago - an incident where it was unrecoverable. We lost control, and if it happened in flight, we would have died. So...

SIMON: Oh gosh.

Mr. KELLY: ...that's something you don't like to happen. And, you know, and in that case it was an error that we made.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. KELLY: Yeah. So that doesn't happen often. But, you know, when it does, in some regards it's good because now you know you're not going to make that mistake in space.

SIMON: The crew of this last Endeavor mission expects to be busy during their 10 days in space. They'll deliver supplies to the International Space Station -where, by the way, Mark Kelly's twin brother, Scott Kelly - who's also an astronaut - will be aboard. They'll install a glacial freezing module, conduct space walks and experiments, and launch a $1.5 billion dark matter detector into space.

After so many flights, Commander Kelly can have a dark sense of humor. He's seen things few men and women have, like swelled heads in outer space.

Mr. KELLY: In zero G, a lot of the fluid, plasma and stuff that's in your lower extremities...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: ...floats up and winds up in your head. That's why you sometimes see people look like they have these giant heads, and it's not just from being in space. You know, it's...

SIMON: I mean, literally the fluid...

Mr. KELLY: Literally.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. KELLY: Yeah, your head gets all puffed.

SIMON: Your brother is going to be up in space a long time, right?

Mr. KELLY: Yeah. Scott'll be in space for about six months. He launches in October, comes home in March. And we'll be there in February...

SIMON: Yeah, February, yeah.

Mr. KELLY: ...to see him. That'll be interesting.

SIMON: So his head ought to be like the size of a blimp at that point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: Maybe.

SIMON: Nobody'll know you're twins by the time...

Mr. KELLY: No.

SIMON: ...you get to see him.

Mr. KELLY: That's how you'll tell the difference. He'll have this giant head.

SIMON: What makes a good crewmate?

Mr. KELLY: I think it's a number of things. Somebody that you would want to go camping with - you know, living in very close quarters, respects kind of personal space and the impact that their actions have on other people. You know, somebody that can do their job really well is, you know, high on the list - you know, that's very good at what their assigned role is in the mission. You know, and somebody that you enjoy being around.

So we've got a great crew - crew of six. There will be another six people on the space station, including three Russians.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: My crew includes one Italian crewmember, Roberto Vittori, and then the space station crew at the same time has an Italian crew member, Paolo Nespoli. So this will be the first time we have two Italians in space as well.

SIMON: Will the food be any better?

Mr. KELLY: No. You know, funny you ask. I asked the European Space Agency about, you know, can we get some special Italian food? So far what they've offered up is the lasagna that we've had on our menu here for 20 years.

SIMON: I have to ask: Is this flight going to be harder?

Mr. KELLY: Yes. You know, for me, if this does turn out to be the last flight of the space shuttle, it'll be a little bit sad. I mean, the shuttle's been just, you know, the workhorse of the U.S. space program for 30 years...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: ...nearly. And it'll be sad to, you know, full stop on the runway that last time, and see Endeavor carted off to a museum. But it's important that we do that so we can move on and do other things. You know, we can't do both.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: How about we turn this around and let you try to land it? What do you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, how 'bout - because I don't even have a drivers license. When a man's commander calls him to duty, it's no time to shirk. Mark Kelly lines up the approach for me, and points out of our windows to the familiar shape of the seahorse peninsula below.

Mr. KELLY: This is all Florida, out here to the left. So it's the Atlantic Ocean here...

SIMON: Oh my gosh, it is Florida out there.

Mr. KELLY: And that's the Gulf of Mexico back there.

SIMON: Yeah. I see the tar balls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I must be projecting, sorry.

Mr. KELLY: Yeah, I think we're right about 70,000 feet, so that's a big tar ball if you see it.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: OK. We're ready to go to run if you guys are ready.

SIMON: We've re-entered Earth's atmosphere, leaving behind a boom as we break the sound barrier and I try to control our craft that's streaking 700 miles per hour through the sky. The slightest move of my hand can make the shuttle swerve by miles.

Mr. KELLY: Whoops. Small inputs. It helps if you put your hand - oop, oop, oop, oop, oop.

SIMON: Oh, sorry...

Mr. KELLY: I'm going to help you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: All right. Let's turn it around.

SIMON: Did we run into Jupiter? What was that planet that went - that we seemed to run into?

Mr. KELLY: That was the moon. Let me see if I can recover this.

SIMON: I'm really sorry.

And then Mark Kelly shows us why he's commanded more space missions than any other human being. He notes that there's an emergency runway nearby, takes control of the craft to bring it in on a wing and a prayer.

Mr. KELLY: Yeah, so this is going to be ugly because we're really steep. I'm going to get the speed brake out. And we're like, in a 40-degree dive. We would normally be like, in a 20-degree dive.

SIMON: Yeah. So everybody would be screaming?

Mr. KELLY: Oh, they're not happy. And we're like - you can see we're coming down like, 390 knots.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: It's going to be a challenge. I might even put the gear down now.

SIMON: All right. And that's an ocean there, isn't it, too?

Mr. KELLY: Yeah. So this is the runway at Cape Canaveral. We dont land the space shuttle here.

SIMON: No.

Mr. KELLY: But it's close, and we couldnt make from that octaflugeron(ph) departure we did there...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: I'm going to arm the gear and get the gear down. That'll slow us down some. Hopefully, it won't rip them off.

SIMON: We land. Our computer-generated wheels kiss the ground and roll to a stop. If I had a bottle of champagne, I'd have opened it - except it would have popped 700 miles per hour beforehand. I ask Commander Kelly...

So that was a brilliant bit of flying on your part.

Mr. KELLY: Or just - maybe just a little lucky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right, let's see if I can redeem myself now. Sorry.

Mr. KELLY: Okay, we're ready to go to run.

SIMON: Okay.

I did get to try another landing. This time, at least I hit the Earth. STS-134 will be the last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. NASA keeps another shuttle ready to rescue them if required. And since it costs so many millions to prepare the craft, they might mount one more shuttle mission, but Endeavor will be rolled into a museum. John Shannon, the shuttle program manager at NASA, has a child's paper cutout of an astronaut with strawberry curls in his Houston office. He got it after a local school asked 7-year-old students to draw a picture of what they wanted to be.

Mr. JOHN SHANNON (NASA): Five of the boys wanted to be paleontologists. I'm not sure they know what that is. But a lot of them wanted to be doctors and lawyers -and only one wanted to be an astronaut, and it was my daughter Sarah. She's the princess astronaut there. But I put it up on my wall just to remind me that, you know, some of the youth of America are really looking forward to us to get this right.

SIMON: John Shannon says he hopes America will still be ambitious enough to seek new achievements in space.

Mr. SHANNON: I do worry. Just like everybody else, I think, involved in human space flight right now, with the hazy future, we can't let the gap in - when the United States is launching astronauts, we can't let that get too big or the workforce, which is incredibly talented and can be used in many different industries - we'll lose them. It is not a fluid workforce; they will go and it will be very difficult to get them back. So what we have to do is come up with the plans and the projects to keep that team together. And I think we're starting to see that now. We're starting to see it come together.

SIMON: The man who keeps the little paper astronaut that his daughter drew, with her face under the helmet, has seen 40 space shuttle launches and knows that for many, they've become just one more, routine miracle. But he urges Americans to watch this next launch.

Mr. SHANNON: It's a feeling like no other. It's awe-inspiring, and it makes you proud that America can do something like that, and that we have the courage to do something like that, because it takes courage to go and fly in space.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: John Shannon, NASA's program manager. Commander Mark Kelly and the crew of Endeavor are now scheduled to launch on February 26th, 2011.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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