Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: STA – An unexpected journey

Shuttle Training Aircraft at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceFlight Insider remembers the final flight of Shuttle Atlantis – and a very special journey – that almost didn’t happen. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — With more than 30 years having elapsed since the first flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis, and more than four years since the United States has lacked the ability to launch astronauts on its own, SpaceFlight Insider decided that it was a good time to discuss a somewhat unexpected journey. For each of the shuttle missions, the commander and pilot fly Shuttle Training Aircraft to prepare for landing one of NASA’s now-retired fleet of orbiters.

Space Shuttle Atlantis rolls over to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in 2012. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

It has been more than 30 years since Shuttle Atlantis took to the skies – and a little over four years since the close of the Shuttle Program. The close of the era allowed for some rare and powerful moments with the orbiters – and those who flew them. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA worked to provide access to the media for a limited number of journalists for these flights. At the time, I was still working for an array of online and print outlets. Persistence and diversity pays.

Wanting to gain a better understanding, in a minuscule way, and to understand a small part of what the astronauts who flew these missions were required to do – to fly into the black – I had been negotiating with NASA since before the flight of STS-133 in February of 2011.

As one might imagine, there is quite an extensive wait list to get on one of these historic flights. By the time of the final flight of the Shuttle Program in July of that same year, it did not look like that flight was going to happen.

Confirmation of which appeared to come when the crew of STS-135 to conduct their training arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test or “TCDT” – when NASA’s Allard Beutel informed me I would not be going on the flight.

He provided a consolation prize – I would be able to join other members of the media as we interviewed NASA’s Shuttle Launch Director Michael Leinbach. Well, I tried.

Samuel Gutierrez was on hand, and I chatted with him about what had occurred – when Beutel approached me again.

“Don’t go anywhere…,” he said. Realizing that I might have a second chance, I promptly informed him the I had just become a Sequoia Tree – and had grown roots.

Space Shuttle Atlantis rolls out to Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on mission STS-135. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Shuttle Atlantis rolls out to Launch Complex 39A – for the last time. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

“Rhian – my office!” Upon reaching Beutel’s office, I was informed that CNN’s John Zarrella could not make it – and that I was “in”.

I rushed over to be informed that I needed to grab my gear and get down to the Kennedy Space Center Press Site’s lower parking lot as soon as possible. What followed is detailed in the video below.

The astronauts who carried out the evening’s exercise included STS-135’s pilot Doug Hurley and the mission’s commander – Chris Ferguson.

I rode with Ferguson as he flew N945NA out over the Atlantic and then back toward the SLF. He ended up doing so some nine times as he prepared to lead Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim on the final mission of the shuttle era.

Months later, when I had bumped into my “pilot” for that flight, STS-135’s commander Chris Ferguson, I mentioned to him that I had flown with him. He asked me what I thought, and I promptly informed that I had been terrified – not because of his flying skills, but because of my fear of flying. He laughed and asked why I went if I was uncomfortable.

The answer was rather straightforward. During the final days of the shuttle era, there was an array of historic milestones that it was the media’s job to cover in as unbiased a fashion as possible. My unexpected flight on the STA that evening was a chance for me to be a part of history.

One thing that is important to make clear about this opportunity is that I achieved it through perseverance and hard work. I stuck it out and – in the end – those actions paid off with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I see Atlantis every now and again and I think about those days when the U.S. was still able to send astronauts beyond the clouds – and into that deep and quiet sea that lies above our world. They say that those days will return in the next couple of years – I hope that they are correct.

For the STA flights, NASA employed the Grumman Gulfstream II aircraft. The reason was a simple matter of practicality – the aircraft closely duplicates the landing profile of NASA’s now-retired fleet of orbiters.

To be clear, being a journalist – one who believes in the merits of hard work – provides an array of opportunities to see what is required for the hyper-complex missions into the black to take place. It provides an appreciation of just how difficult these endeavors are – as well as a biting nostalgia – that events like this are no longer taking place.

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider – with NASA elements

The preceding is a review based on the opinions and reflections of the author and don’t necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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