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Air Traffic Control vs. Space Shuttle

We’re coming in a bit hot…

Air Traffic Control vs. Space Shuttle

Atlantis’ belly is visible in a crystal-clear blue sky as it approaches touchdown on Runway 33. / Tony Gray and Tom Farrar via NASA

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:

Space Shuttle Atlantis

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.

ATC (Los Angeles)

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…

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Roger, cleared for the straight in and trying to slow down. Coming in a bit hot at the moment.

[a minute later]

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.

ATC (Los Angeles)

Understood, Contact Fort Worth on 223.7.

[a minute later]
Space Shuttle Atlantis

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.

ATC (Fort Worth)

Atlantis, do you have an IFR flightplan on file for that air corridor you’re in?

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Negative, didn’t have time to file one 60 seconds ago when we missed our approach in California.

ATC (Fort Worth)

What’s your clearance destination?

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Earth—hopefully Cape Canaveral at this point. It’s kind of our last shot.

ATC (Fort Worth)

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.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Thanks.

[a minute later]

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.

ATC (Kennedy Space Center)

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.

[after landing and rolling to a stop]

Atlantis, clear the active runway please. I’ve got a NASA vomit comet on final.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Kennedy Ground, Atlantis…

ATC (Kennedy Ground Control)

Go ahead Atlantis…

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Can we get a push off the active? We overshot the turnoff again.

ATC (Kennedy Ground Control)

Dang it guys, every freakin’ time! Good grief. Alright, I’ll send the tug out to you.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

‘preciate it. We owe you a beer!

ATC (Kennedy Ground Control)

Rumor is you owe the controllers in Fort Worth and L.A. one too.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Yeah…

[Astronauts on Atlantis crew internal coms]
Astronaut 1

Man, I have to cancel my Uber at Edwards now!

Astronaut 2

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.