Monday, February 16, 2009

Designing America's Altair at Ames

By Mike Swift
Mercury News

Aiming at a tiny landing pad on the gray surface far below, astronaut Charlie Precourt banked the spacecraft to the right. A mottled blue and white orb hung in the black sky — the Earth.

Precourt, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, deftly flared the thrust to kill the craft's momentum. Far below, a tiny American flag grew in size as the ground swept up to meet the ship. Precourt braked to a gentle touchdown.

Once again, human beings had landed on the moon. But Precourt and his two passengers had never left Silicon Valley.

At NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, a group of former astronauts, including several Apollo astronauts who flew the original Lunar Module in space, are helping design America's next lunar lander. NASA engineers are using the world's most advanced motion-based flight simulator at Ames to help create Altair, the next-generation lunar lander that NASA hopes to land on the moon by 2020, returning humans to the moon for the first time in nearly half a century.

Over and over in recent weeks, in a concrete building deep in the Ames complex, some of NASA's best pilots have been landing — and frequently crashing — on the moon, painstakingly logging data with each descent on the Vertical Motion Simulator, or VMS. The information they are collecting will help determine everything from the amount of thrust the lander's engine will have, to the design and function of the cockpit instruments.

Read more HERE.

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