The commander of the last Space Shuttle mission recently returned to space, but never left the ground. No, this isn’t one of those annoying lateral thinking puzzles. Chris Ferguson, commander of the STS-135 Atlantis mission in 2011 and currently director of Crew and Mission Operations at Boeing, went on a virtual flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in a ground-based simulator as part of NASA’s testing requirements for Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft.
Ferguson’s “flight” wasn’t just a video game joyride. According to Boeing, it was the final milestone before the CST 100’s critical design review. In this case, Ferguson drew on his experience as veteran of three shuttle missions, 40 days in orbit, and 5,700 hours of high-performance flying to demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to operate with a "Pilot in the Loop." In other words, with a pilot at the manual controls instead of under automatic guidance.
During the simulated mission, Ferguson took the virtual spacecraft through a series of maneuvers, including on-orbit attitude and translation, docking the simulator with a virtual ISS, backing away again, and effecting a manual re-entry.
"It was great to be back in the pilot’s seat, even if I didn't leave the ground," Ferguson says. "It's important for the spacecraft to have manual controls because although it's designed to be largely autonomous, the pilot should always be able to back up that autonomy. Manual flight controls provide a sort of a belt-and-suspenders capability for piloting the spacecraft."
The CST-100 is one of several spacecraft being developed by private companies for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program as a replacement for the space shuttle, for ferrying cargo and crews to the ISS. Featuring a weldless design and a pressure vessel capable of flying up to ten missions before needing to be replaced, the CST-100 is intended to carry up to seven passengers or a mix of passengers and cargo to the space station.
Boeing says that the simulator will be used for preliminary astronaut training until more can be built for training astronauts and mission controllers.