Posted by: Korry | January 3, 2012

Techie Tuesday: Air Travel vs. Space Travel

A few weeks ago, I received the following email from Julie, one of our readers. She asks:

So, after obsessing over Apollo 13 and the space program over the past few days, I started wondering how and to what degree air travel and space travel are linked.  Do you  learn some about both in your training? Do space pilots have to be air pilots first?  If you decided to become an astronaut, would you have a leg up on everyone else who isn’t a pilot, or is it a completely different set of skills? Do you have any interest in space travel?

These are great Techie Tuesday questions, Julie! Let me start by saying that I am just a simple man airline pilot…a fact that was made abundantly clear to me when my head nearly exploded while reading Wikipedia’s entry for spacecraft propulsion and especially Astrodynamics. (Try those links only at your own peril!!) That said, let me take a stab at answering your questions the best I can.

In many ways, air travel and space travel are similar. For instance, the space shuttle functions basically the same as a heavy glider with itty-bitty wings (a.k.a. flying brick) during re-entry and landing. Thanks to the dense air in the Earth’s atmosphere, the shuttle can turn and maneuver almost the same as a “normal” airplane. Check out this amazing video from a “heads up display” of a shuttle landing in Houston:

The big differences start when the shuttle, a rocket, a satellite, or any other space vehicle leaves the comfort of the Earth’s atmosphere. This is because in space, there is very, very little air, and to maneuver a traditional airplane, you need airflow over the wings and tail to allow control surfaces such as the ailerons, rudder and elevator to change pitch, roll, etc. So in space (as I understand it at least), they can’t rely on airflow, so they have to use orbits and Newton’s Laws, particularly the one about every action causing an equal and opposite reaction. (See, your head is already starting to explode, isn’t it??) In really simple terms, if a space vehicle needs to turn to the left, a small propulsion device (tiny rocket) fires on the right side of the craft thus causing an equal and opposite reaction that moves the vehicle to the left. This is what they’re doing in Apollo 13 when they talk about the boosters helping them to align onto the proper flight path. Of course, the orbits have to do with gravitational pull of planets. They use orbits even to go long distances; they just change what the focal point of the orbit is. And now I’m moving on before a headache sets in from just thinking about this stuff!!

As you may know, the space shuttles have been retired, so until the new space vehicle comes along, there won’t be a huge demand for space pilots at NASA. I did find the minimum requirements for being a shuttle commander or pilot online, which included 1,000 hours of PIC (that is, pilot in command time of a traditional airplane) with flight test experience highly desired. I’m guessing this really isn’t very competitive in actuality. I would presume that most astronaut pilots come from the military and have substantially more flight time and experience, but I could be wrong. So as to whether I’d have a leg up, I’d say probably not.

For those actually selected, the training is intense. They use flight simulators, much like airline pilots, to practice for emergency situations that could occur during a routine flight. NASA also uses a highly modified Gulfstream II (think corporate jet) to train pilots to land the shuttle, a particularly difficult task due to the incredibly steep approach angle and the fact that they only get one shot at a landing. I came across this article written by a former shuttle pilot that has lots of detail for you about training to land the shuttle:

Do I personally have interest in space travel? Absolutely! I love the perspective I gain from flying at 35,000, so I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to see something like this out your front window:

For me, the closest I’ll probably get to flying a space vehicle is watching Apollo 13 on an IMAX screen….unless I win the lottery, and then count me in for Virgin Galactic! Mega Millions anyone??

Do you have a technical question about airplanes or the airlines? Email me at and ask away!

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