Landing a space shuttle can be hard work

July 20, 2011 3:16:57 PM PDT
Landing a space shuttle isn't the kind of thing you learn on the job. Eyewitness News In Focus reporter Ted Oberg was given the chance to learn how to land a shuttle using the very same simulator as the actual pilots.

When the shuttle lands on Thursday, it will be the official end of the program -- 30 years of American space flight will be over. To get a better sense of how it goes and what it means, we found one man with a unique seat for Thursday's history.

With the International Space Station in its rearview mirror, space shuttle Atlantis is just one rocket blast away from dropping out of orbit, gliding home and ending the shuttle program. It's a view astronaut Butch Wilmore knows real well.

"It is amazing to be at 150,000 feet at Mach 18 watching the world zip by. First off, you burn halfway around the world. You're so far away, you think are we going to make it. Then you look out your window and there's the landing site. We're 300 miles away and we're not going to slow down in time," Wilmore said.

It can be a frightening view, even without leaving the ground. NASA showed us the landing up close in the shuttle simulator. It certainly is unique; the shuttle has no ability to power itself as it lands. It really is a glider.

Technically this landing will be the same as every other one, but emotionally it won't even be close.

"I think it's very easy to look at a vehicle and give that vehicle a soul," said Wilmore, who is the capsule communicator for Atlantis' landing.

Wilmore is the only guy who will talk with the final four astronauts as they come home and one of the voices likely to immortalized as the final word on the 30-year shuttle program.

"I've pondered it. I've pondered it," Wilmore said.

It's a moment decades in the making, likely to be view and reviewed for decades to come.

"You know really it's a bunch of bent metal -- it's just a bunch of bent metal that does amazing things," he said.

And while we didn't ask him to spoil the suspense, we did want to know how he thought the shuttle should be remembered.

"It's the last time that bent metal flies, the shuttle is going to fly true. But I think the future is bright. I don't know how it will go, but it's bright with any number of possibilities," Wilmore said.

He said his seat in the chair talking to the crew is the second best spot for the landing. The best is the pilot's seat, but that's taken.

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