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Motion-based simulator gives astronauts a taste of flight

While nothing could fully duplicate a Space Shuttle launch, an advanced simulator at Johnson Space Center comes closer than anything on Earth.

The motion-based simulator.
The motion-based simulator.
The Motion-based Shuttle Simulator in Building 5 has been preparing crews for their missions for more than 20 years. The simulator is designed to replicate launch, ascent, entry and landing. Shuttle Mission Simulator and Space Station Training Facility Manager Charlie Spencer said that the simulator gives crewmembers an accurate feel for these mission milestones, except for a few G’s.

“In a real launch, they would be feeling about 3.5 G’s,” Spencer said. “In the sim, you get most of the motion except for the G force. You do get the vibration of the vehicle; when the Solid Rocket Boosters and External Tank drop off, you feel those. When it rolls, you feel it and see the effects out the window.”

The simulator consists of a high-fidelity replicated Space Shuttle Flight Deck -- accurate down to each switch and knob. It operates on six hydraulic, computer-controlled legs and runs the same software as the Shuttle.

Spencer said that crews are in contact with Mission Control during a simulation, just as during a real launch. The machine also allows crews to train for various types of abort landings and malfunctions.

“The instructors strap them in and the crew thinks they know what they’re going to do, but they don’t know the malfunctions and problems they’re going to get,” he said. Following each session, the crew debriefs with their trainers. The simulator is reset and the process starts over.

This unique training device was designed in the late ‘70s and has been in operation since the first Shuttle flight in 1981. Crew feedback continued to shape the simulator until it arrived at its present configuration.

“Early on, there was a lot of tweaking of the motion, the sound, the visuals,” Spencer said, “but we’ve been doing it so long now that the comments I get back are that it’s very realistic.”

Spencer, who has worked at JSC since the first Apollo mission, said he enjoys the somewhat chaotic training environment in Building 5.

“It’s a little like an airport -- things are happening here every day, 24 hours a day,” he said. “It’s really an interesting place.”

Kendra Phipps
Johnson Space Center, Houston
(281) 483-9268

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