The cabin rumbles.
Lying on my back, legs up, I see the launch complex and coastline fall away. Ahead, darkness is approaching. Suddenly, Pop! We release our two solid rocket boosters. A few minutes later, we drop the external fuel tank. Then, at once, everything is smooth. We're in orbit.
Actually, we're in Houston. This is NASA's Shuttle Mission Simulator, the world's most sophisticated simulation system. Every shuttle astronaut has trained here since the program began in the late 1970s. Naturally, the simulator has been upgraded many times, most recently getting the new controls of the shuttles' "glass cockpit."
"It's the ultimate dress rehearsal," explains Simulation Supervisor Bill Todd. "You can't distinguish the activity here from a real mission." The key is the motion base-hydraulic actuators that move up or down, left or right, and forward or back-which can simulate virtually any flight movement. Four digital-image systems provide convincing outside views, while high-fidelity audio approximates the sounds of space flight.
After several minutes in orbit, Todd calls for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center. "OK, let's see you land it on instruments. No heads-up display, no windows." My eyes lock on the gauges under the dash: orientation, airspeed, altitude, rate of descent. With a few thousand feet to go, I strain to keep up with Todd's commands.
"Two-thousand feet. Arm landing gear. Bring it down a bit. Roll left. Left. Left. Pitch down-you don't want to overshoot the runway. OK, 400 feet, deploy landing gear. Roll right. Right. Come on. Get on centerline. Not too much! Roll back left. You're too far right. Look at the horizon. Level your wings. Oh, this isn't good." My crewmates behind me giggle, reminding me it's only a simulation.
We all brace, then touchdown. I land it just right of the runway and plunge through the soggy Florida turf. My foot stabs at the left rudder pedal; with enough momentum, I sneak back onto the runway-nowhere near the coveted centerline, but close enough to ease my embarrassment. As Todd often says, any landing you walk away from is a good landing.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.