Riding onboard Atlantis during re-entry

by Chris Bergin

Stunning video, taken by STS-115 astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper during Atlantis’ re-entry and landing last month, has been acquired, showing what it is like to ride on board an orbiter during re-entry.

The two hour video shows camcorder footage from before the de-orbit burn, all the way through to post landing checks.

**The full 2 hour long, 355 meg video of STS-115’s re-entry and landing, plus expert commentary and the supporting STS-115 Re-entry checklist document are available on L2**

**A FREE edited version is available to download by clicking this link**

The video includes over 10 minutes of Atlantis’ descent through the fiery re-entry, with flight deck audio that gives an amazing insight into the professional, calm, and at times humorous onboard chatter during the return to Earth.

STS-115, which launched on September 9 for a 12 day mission, was deemed a huge success, as NASA re-started assembly flights to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission saw the installation of the P3/P4 integrated truss segments and solar array deployment.

The return home occurred on September 21, landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:21am local time, watched by millions all over the planet. However, only the six member crew got to watch the return via the vantage point of being onboard Atlantis – until now.

The handheld camcorder video is believed to have been taken to allow the two crew members on the middeck to watch re-entry on screens via a link to the video being taken by Stefanyshyn-Piper. The middeck has no windows, unlike the flight deck.

The video begins with the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) start – required to power such functions as the flight control surfaces and landing gear. This is followed shortly by the firing of the Orbital Manoeuvring System (OMS) engine, used to slow the orbiter down by a few hundred miles per hour – enough to aid her to decay the orbit enough for entry interface.

After dumping fuel from the forward RCS (Reaction Control System) jets, the crew started to put on their gloves and helmets, as they prepared to start hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, but not before some of the banter between Commander Brent Jett and Pilot Chris Ferguson started up.

‘Ready for a stealthy night landing,’ said Jett. ‘I like (runway 33),’ added Ferguson, referring to the designation of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) for a south-east approach, as opposed to approaching from the north-west – which is called Runway 15.

‘I like (33) better than 15 actually, I don’t know why!’ Added Ferguson.

The Master Alarm sounded shortly after, flashing on the control panel, causing a bit of a surprise. ‘Anyone know what that was?’ said Ferguson. ‘(SSME) Hydrogen Repress,’ said Jett, reading off his cue cards that ‘it says Master Alarm possible.’

The official term, SSME HYD REPRESS, is where the fluid lines of the Space Shuttle Main Engines are cleared out, and can cause the Master Alarm to sound, due to spikes in the hydraulic pressure.

What proves to be visually stunning is the point at which Atlantis began her interface with the atmosphere. Bright flashes are observed, with the appearance of flash photography, soon to brighten in intensity.

That was pre-empted by the commander, who mentioned, ‘you’ll start to get a pretty good light show off the top, eventually, especially when we start to hit the real heating. You’ll start to see stuff coming off the tail.’

Pointing the camera back to the front window view, some of the flashes started to get very intense, but they were pointed out as the RCS (Reaction Control System) jets firing, which to the untrained eye appear as part of re-entry. However, the intense orange glow that would be observed soon put pay to that assumption.

‘A little bit of Gs coming on, but very little. It’s point one down there guys,’ said Jett. ‘So you’re starting to just feel the affects of G – point one on the meter.’

That was soon followed by the first roll of the orbiter – a 70 to 80 degree left bank – designed to aid the loss of energy to help slow down. Atlantis hit 0.2 G at that point.

‘As we turn left and right, you might feel a bit of funniness, which will eventually go away.

‘Point two Gs now, my arms are starting to sag. Oh bummer (laughter),’ continued the conversation between Jett and Ferguson. ‘I’m starting to feel my seat now, down in my seat. (Inaudible) starting to sag too (laughter).’

The glow from the heat produced by the friction on entry interface soon starts to turn into a bright orange appearance, almost as if the orbiter was heading directly into a setting Sun, as Atlantis started to bleed off velocity, through the lower mach 20s.

Whilst racing through the orange glow and flashes of re-entry – Atlantis made her roll reversal to right. The smoothness of Atlantis’ performance throughout the whole descent pays a great testament to the thousands of workers who prepare the three orbiters for flight, as she belied the ‘flying brick’ nickname. The vast majority of the return home is controlled by Atlantis herself, with Jett and Ferguson observing the flight.

As the crew returned back to one G, Jett commented ‘There’s life back on Earth,’ followed by comments from Ferguson, who noted the feeling of gravity returning to normal for the first time in nearly a fortnight, saying ‘Wow, feel how heavy that is on the balls of your feet.’ They would experience up to 1.5 G during the right bank.

After around 10 stunning minutes of riding through the orange glow, the plasma started the disappear, just at the point Atlantis slowed to mach 12.

‘Things are going to start to get real busy now,’ commented Jett, as they prepared for the descent towards Florida. ‘The flight gloves will be coming off! (laughter)’

Slowing through mach 10, radio interference started to crackle through the flight deck. ‘Sounds like they (Houston) are trying to talk to us,’ noted Jett. Soon followed by the first communications from the Mission Control Center, as Atlantis came out of the radio blackout that occurs when riding through the plasma of re-entry.

‘That’s the coast of Florida,’ observed Ferguson, just prior to mach 5. ‘Things are really going to happen fast now guys.’

The final roll provided the perfect angle to show the Florida coast, with the city lights guiding the way, and the eclipse of the approaching dawn far in the distance on the horizon. Ferguson took hold of the camera for a few moments to show the stunning view from his vantage point.

Dropping through 80,000 feet, the camera was hooked up to pilot Ferguson’s HUD (Heads Up Display) monitor, showing the horizon along with flight data, as Atlantis continued to lose altitude.

‘What a beautiful morning,’ noted Jett. ‘Mach 1.3, slowing down – we’re feeling like an airplane,’ as wind noise started to pick up in the flight deck, along with some vibration, described as ‘the rocky road,’ in the approach to the HAC (Head Alignment Cylinder).

Making the right turn to align with the runway, the HUD camera picked up the lights of eastern Florida. ‘Very nice, beautiful day outside, or night. Clear as a bell,’ said Ferguson.

Lining up with the runway, chatter increased to its highest intensity, as Ferguson and Jett conversed the final approach as Atlantis literally dropped towards the floodlit runway for a perfect landing.

‘Wheel stop Houston,’ said Jett. ‘It was a great team effort. Assembly is off to a great category,’ before congratulations between the crew on the great job.

As the crew started to go through their post landing procedures, the cavalry of support vehicles took up their staging point, before their headlights were seen closing in on Atlantis.

Support continued as dawn rose over the SLF, before the crew disembarked from Atlantis, bringing their 12 day mission to a close.

**INFINITY: 10 minute STS-115 MUSIC VIDEO** –
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