Be sure to check out our pics from the Atlantis astronauts' homecoming at Johnson Space Center.
You often hear the expression "a once in a lifetime experience," and while this may or may not always be true, for those lucky enough to participate in a NASA Tweet-up, nothing else can describe it.
Recently, I was one of thirty-two people to be invited to the STS-135 Atlantis Tweetup at NASA, celebrating Atlantis' last trip -- and the final space shuttle mission - to the International Space Station. Over 650 people applied, with the highlight of the trip a chance to pilot the actual space shuttle simulator that every astronaut has trained on. Most of us would get to be in the simulator while one of the other Twitterers flew it. As fate would have it, I was chosen to actually be the commander of our little crew, or STS-136 as we dubbed each other.
Getting picked to be the commander was both exhilarating and kind of scary. While I obviously wasn't going to really kill us for real, no one wants to be the person that couldn't fly the thing.
When you get in the simulator, it's overwhelming how many buttons and switches there are. I honestly have no idea how anyone would ever remember what needs to be done when. Luckily Henry, the flight instructor, was kind enough to take care of everything except using the stick.
Even getting into the seat is a bit of a challenge. There's no graceful way to do it, other than just crawling over the center section. When you get in the seat, you use the five-part harness to strap yourself in. This is the full-motion simulator, so you do need to be strapped in so you don't go tumbling out of your seat, hurting yourself or your other crewmates.
After getting strapped in, Henry proceeded to go into what sounded to me like a lot of very technical jargon on what to look for on the controls. I tried to concentrate, but the thought that kept running through my head was, "Oh my god. I'm going to kill all of us."
Finally, it was time to take off. The simulator titled so that we were lying on our backs and the shaking started. It reminded me of being in the Texas Cyclone at Astroworld once you got going down that first hill. The simulator is even realistic enough that, as we took off, you can see the tower on the launch pad out the side window. Seeing this drop off to our left and the moon come up is something I'll never forget.
Soon it was time for me to take control and head out into space. While all you really have to do (at least when you don't have to worry about anything else and have a flight instructor) is follow the diamond in the middle of the screen by pulling on the stick, it's still kind of difficult. The first time I really took control, I overshot and caused the simulator to jump. I said a not very polite word into the headset, but I doubt I'm the only one that's done this.
When the shuttle comes around for landing, there's a lot of movement on the screen and I did not follow the diamond at first. The instructor helped get me corrected and heading the runway. While I came in a little fast and my rate of decent could have been better, I had what they call a "survivable" landing, even managing to get us almost dead center on the runway.
Never in my wildest dreams was this something that I thought I would experience and to be one of the last people in a thirty year history to do so, was incredible and even humbling. Every person we interacted with at NASA was kind and seemed to be as excited to meet us as we were them.
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While the future of NASA is more uncertain now than probably ever before, all I can say is a heartfelt thanks to each man and woman that works there. I'll be crossing my fingers that the next thirty years is even better than the last.