The Space Shuttle, which made a rare night landing last night in Florida, isn't a plane so much as a delicate instrument made for getting the astronauts to and from space. Much like the way it leaves the Earth, it returns in surgical-like fashion, barreling out of space at Mach 3 and at 40 degrees, without power. Known as a "flying brick," it only gets one chance to come down.
To learn how to land this $1.5 billion, 100-ton glider, you might think astronauts practice in a kick-ass simulator and some jet plane that resembles the shuttle. They have the simulator. But their fly jet, the Shuttle Training Aircraft is actually a modified 30-year-old Gulfstream II—the craft of choice for the Rolex-wearing, burgundy-suited executive of the 1970s.
Though it's tempting as it is to imagine champagne-sipping astronauts luxuriating in leather-appointed interiors, watching the game with former baseball players and rappers, NASA's G2 is all business. The 30-year-old plane isn't designed for jetting around the globe, but for practicing a safe landing on a concrete strip at speeds twenty times faster and an angle seven times steeper than an average commercial airliner.
The most bling in this jet comes courtesy of a bank of Shuttle-simulating computers that take the place of several passenger seats in the back, assisting a cockpit outfitted to look just like the shuttle (see image above). Even the windows are covered up to look like the real thing.
To simulate the shuttle's extreme descent, NASA pilots break all the flying rules—dropping the main landing gear at 37,000 feet, reversing engine thrust and playing with the flaps to decrease or increase lift. The aircraft's exterior has also been modified, with new wing control surfaces and landing gear that can deal with the kind of aerodynamic forces that would tear apart a Delta plane apart and make the hair on John Travolta's goatee fall out.
Jack "Triple" Nickel, a research pilot somewhat legendary at NASA for running the trainings at White Sands Space Harbor, in New Mexico (and for being a pretty great amateur astronomer) explains the experience as "scary":
"We use the very slick, sports car-like feel of the STA to simulate the 'falling brick' of the Space Shuttle… You know when a commercial plane lands and you're thrown forward after the wheels touch down? We do that at 30,000 feet.
It's still scary… In a plane like this, a corporate jet, there is no sky visible out the front cockpit. All you see out the window is dirt, there is absolutely no sky. So it's a very ominous feeling. With the engines in reverse thrust, you're hanging in your harness.
To perfect their landings before they get to fly the real thing, Commanders and Pilots practice their adrenaline-pumping corporate jet daredevilism no less than 1000 times.
The plane has been used since the late 70s, back when the Shuttle was getting ready to make its first flight. But why does NASA still use an elderly airplane like the Gulfstream II, which was produced between 1966 and 1979, to train astronauts? Probably because the plane has remained a reliable and realistic way to simulate landings, and there's no been no need for major improvements. Added bonus: the awesome factor of being able to say you trained to land the space shuttle in an executive jet.
In 2001, a Gulfstream II sold on eBay for $4.9 million, setting a record for the auction site. There's no word on whether NASA's four trainer Gulfstreams will go up for sale when the Shuttle program retires at the end of the year. But the agency could sure earn some extra cash by auctioning one of these bad boys off to a bank exec or space tycoon. After all, what better way to seize the moment and seal a business deal or seduce a date than a perfectly safe, oh-my-god-we're-gonna-die landing?