Last week’s first SpaceX crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS) got me binging on spaceflight-related articles and videos lately. Although I knew the space shuttle somehow returned to Earth by gliding in for a landing like a plane, I really had no idea how this transition from orbiting spacecraft to atmospheric glider worked. I imagined it could make for a pretty unusual conversation with air traffic control (ATC) though:
Uhh, Good Evening Los Angeles, Space Shuttle Atlantis here. We’re descending down into your airspace at about Mach 10… We’d like vectors to Edwards please. Oh, and we’re just a really expensive glider now so if you could keep us out of holding patterns, we’d appreciate it.
Ok.. Space Glider Atlantis. Turn heading 125 and then you should be lined up for the straight in approach to Edwards. Do try to get that airspeed down a bit for me if you can…
Roger, cleared for the straight in and trying to slow down. Coming in a bit hot at the moment.
Los Angeles, Atlantis here again. Er, looks like we may have overshot our re-entry a bit. We’re gonna aim for Florida instead. Thanks, G’day.
Understood, Contact Fort Worth on 223.7.
Fort Worth, Space Shuttle Atlantis. We’re in hot brick mode. Mind if we transit your airspace at Mach 5 with a constant sink rate? Trying to get to Florida in a hurry.
Atlantis, do you have an IFR flightplan on file for that air corridor you’re in?
Negative, didn’t have time to file one 60 seconds ago when we missed our approach in California.
What’s your clearance destination?
Earth—hopefully Cape Canaveral at this point. It’s kind of our last shot.
Fair Enough. Fly current heading and maintain… Never mind, guess you can’t maintain an altitude. I’ll just route traffic out of your way.
Hi Kennedy. Atlantis here. We’re baa—aack! Sorry about the change of plans. Started re-entry a second too late. We’d like the straight in approach to runway three-three if we can get it. Actually we’re kind of committed now so… Yeah that would be great.
Kennedy to Atlantis. Well, it’s not like you can loiter up there working through the ILS approach. You’re lucky the visibility is good today, so go for it. Cleared for the visual, straight in, runway three-three.
Atlantis, clear the active runway please. I’ve got a NASA vomit comet on final.
Kennedy Ground, Atlantis…
Go ahead Atlantis…
Can we get a push off the active? We overshot the turnoff again.
Dang it guys, every freakin’ time! Good grief. Alright, I’ll send the tug out to you.
‘preciate it. We owe you a beer!
Rumor is you owe the controllers in Fort Worth and L.A. one too.
Man, I have to cancel my Uber at Edwards now!
Could be worse. Those Apollo guys in the capsules had to swim back to Florida if the Navy couldn’t find them after splashdown.
Needless to say, this isn’t really how it works! I did find this very informative (and highly entertaining) video however that explains the actual process very well!
This guy does a great job explaining it! I definitely recommend checking it out if you’re into aviation/spaceflight. There’s some really funny parts too, and the footage towards the end from the cockpit during an actual landing is really cool!
I think it’s amazing that someone (or I guess something—as this re-entry sequence is largely assisted by computers) can figure out the exact point at which to re-enter the atmosphere (in excess of Mach 25) and then control the gliding descent so as to have just enough energy to glide in for a landing on a very specific—and relatively tiny—point on the Earth (i.e. a runway in Florida or California).
Bonus: Here’s another cool video featuring footage (and sounds) from different angles of the space shuttle main engines starting, umbilical separation right before launch and booster and main tank separation during ascent.