Years before the space shuttle would glide home to a safe touchdown on runways in California and Florida, astronauts pitched the noses of T-38 jet trainers toward the same runways to find out what it would look like to land a spacecraft in such a way.
STS-134 Crew Arrives at Kennedy
The STS-134 crew arrived in T-38 jets on Tuesday, April 26, 2011, at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and spare parts including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank and additional spare parts for Dextre, during the 14-day mission. Launch is scheduled for Friday, April 29 at 3:47 p.m. EDT.
The T-38 remains a fixture for astronaut training more than 30 years later because the sleek, white jets make pilots and mission specialists think quickly in changing situations, mental experiences the astronauts say are critical to practicing for the rigors of spaceflight.
“It’s actually our most important training that we do as astronauts,” said Terry Virts, who flew as the pilot of STS-130 aboard shuttle Endeavour. “It’s the one place where we’re not in a simulator. It’s real flying and if you make a mistake, you can get hurt or break something or run out of gas. There are a lot of things that happen real-world in a T-38 that don’t happen in the simulator.”
“You’re in a different world, a dynamic world, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a shuttle or a T-38,” said Story Musgrave, a six-time shuttle flyer who posted thousands of hours in the T-38 and instructed others how to fly it, too. “It’s understanding the rules, how to live within the rules.”
Powered by two afterburning General Electric J85 engines, a T-38 can fly supersonic up to Mach 1.6 and soar above 40,000 feet, about 10,000 feet higher than airliners typically cruise. The plane can wrench its pilots through more than seven Gs, or seven times the force of gravity. That’s enough to make simply lifting hands a feat of strength and breathing a labored chore. It’ll make one’s neck feel like it is balancing a cinder block. It’s also more than enough to make the average person black out.
“The T-38 is a great aircraft for what we need at NASA because it’s fast, it’s high-performance and it’s very simple,” Virts said. “It’s safe and it’s known. So compared to other airplanes, it’s definitely one of the best.”
Made by Northrop, the T-38 was first fielded by the U.S. Air Force in 1961 as an advanced jet trainer, and it still serves the Air Force in that capacity. It was the preferred aircraft of the Air Force Thunderbirds during the 1970s, when the T-38s starred as the feature performers in air shows around the world.
A T-38’s NASA paint scheme is largely white with a blue stripe down the length of its narrow fuselage, earning it the occasional nickname “white rocket.” But mostly they’re called T-38s or just “38s.” NASA’s small fleet is housed mainly at Ellington Field outside NASA’s Johnson Space Center where a team of mechanics looks after them.
“Staying ahead of the jet” is the pilot-speak for constantly calculating fuel needs, navigation points, mission requirements and dozens of other things needed to fly successfully.
The Air Force pilots who would become astronauts and fly the shuttle learned the finer points of jet aircraft at the controls of T-38s. Virts, for example, learned to fly a T-38 when he was a 21-year-old lieutenant.
“It pulls Gs not quite like a frontline fighter,” Virts said. “It’s fast, but frontline fighters are faster, but the one thing the T-38 can do amazingly well is roll. You jam the stick to the side and it rolls really, really fast. That’s something that on your first flight they always want to demo to you. At first, you’re like, ‘Oh, cool!’ and then after a bunch of rolls, you’re like, ‘Alright, that’s enough rolling the airplane.’ ”
Anyone who didn’t fly a T-38 before they got to NASA learned to fly it once they joined the astronaut corps. Basic astronaut training includes T-38 courses, and mission specialists, who do not sit at the controls of a space shuttle, have to record four hours a month at the stick of a T-38. Commanders and pilots are required to fly the T-38 for 15 hours a month to keep up their proficiency.