What's it like to land NASA's Space Shuttle? We find out

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The Space Shuttle simulator at NASA Ames Research Center on Sept. 18, 2012. [Credit: Martyn Williams/IDG News Service]

We're barrelling down the runway at the Kennedy Space Center at about 300 kilometers per hour, and the Space Shuttle is well to the left of the center line.

Astronaut Karol "Bo" Bobko, sitting next to me in the co-pilot's seat, says cooly, "Push on the right pedal to get it back on center."

I hit the pedal and the Shuttle moves back toward the center of the runway, but I shoot past that and hit the opposite pedal to steer left again. Slowly the spacecraft comes under control and rolls to a stop as I await a line of NASA vehicles and TV crews to descend on the Shuttle and capture my triumphant return to Earth.

But they don't arrive. Instead, the screen in front of me flickers and we're making another approach, this time to Halifax Airport through low cloud cover.

Approaching the runway at the Halifax Airport in the Space Shuttle simulator at NASA Ames Research Center on Sept. 18, 2012. [Credit: Martyn Williams/IDG News Service]

The simulator here at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View doesn't get used much for Shuttle practice these days. When Atlantis landed on July 8, 2011, it put to a close one of the most successful and high-profile programs in NASA history.

Today, however, is different. The simulator is getting a workout as Bobko is giving a handful of reporters a chance to land the Space Shuttle. (See video of Bobko explaining the simulator and video of the simulator landing in this YouTube clip.)

In the simulator, things are quite relaxed. Because I am secure in the knowledge that a crash won't be fatal, flying is in some respects just another video game. But with an astronaut next to me, I really want to fly well and put the Shuttle down on the runway.

Approaching the runway at the Kennedy Space Center in the Space Shuttle simulator at NASA Ames Research Center on Sept. 18, 2012. [Credit: Martyn Williams/IDG News Service]

To do that, I'm concentrating on a stylized Shuttle mark in the center of a head's-up display. It's showing my destination based on current speed and flight path. Nearby is a small circle denoting where I am supposed to be heading. Getting on track isn't too difficult: I just need to line up the stylized Shuttle with a third symbol, a diamond, and I'll end up flying toward the intended target point.

For most of the descent, the Shuttle is coming down at 20 degrees. With no engine power, it's essentially a giant glider, and the steep angle of approach—much more than the 3 degrees used by commercial airliners—is needed to keep up the speed.

At about 3,000-feet elevation, I need to pull back on the joystick and put the Shuttle into a much more modest 1.5-degree approach. From there I need to target the touchdown zone on the runway to put the Shuttle on the ground. Once down, it's on to those pedals to steer the craft and slow it down.

See below:

I successfully land three times in a row—and I'm pretty pleased with myself, but Bobko says I had it easy.

"We didn't give you any blown tires, or bad crosswinds, or navigation errors," he says. "And remember, in the real Shuttle there are a million other buttons and switches."

Bobko is every bit the American hero. A colonel in the U.S. Air Force, he was part of the first graduating class of the Air Force Academy and racked up more than 6,600 hours of flight time in aircraft including the F-100 Super Sabre, F-105 Thunderchief, T-33 Shooting Star and T-38 Talon.

He became an astronaut in 1969 working on the Skylab program, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the Space Shuttle, where he flew into space three times. He was a pilot on his first flight in 1983 (mission STS-6) and later the mission commander on two 1985 flights (STS-51D and STS-51J).

Now he works at NASA Ames, where he manages the center's simulation laboratories.

On Friday, he'll get one last chance to see the Space Shuttle in the air when it makes a low-level flyover of NASA Ames en-route to Los Angeles, where it will eventually go on show at the California Science Center.

I ask him if he's looking forward to the flyover.

"Yes," he says quickly. "It'll give me goosebumps, and I'll probably cry."

[Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com]

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