...what it felt like to fly Endeavour? (with Chris Ferguson)

Ever Wonder? / March 29, 2023

The Science Center has proudly displayed Space Shuttle Endeavour to our guests for the past ten years. Seeing the shuttle is amazing, but…

Do you ever wonder what it felt like to fly Endeavour?

We talked to Chris Ferguson (@Astro_Ferg), a former Navy pilot and NASA astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions, including one as commander of Endeavour in 2008. He shares a vivid play-by-play of what he saw out the window while landing at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. By the way, my favorite part of his story is how the shuttle’s double sonic boom was heard across LA County, surprising some sleepy residents on an early Sunday morning!

It’s always a treat to talk to astronauts, especially one who’s flown on Endeavour. So, join us as we hear from one of the most experienced and accomplished space shuttle commanders, Chris Ferguson.

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to the podcast team to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts. To see a full list of episodes, visit our show’s webpage.


Perry Roth-Johnson (00:06):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. The Science Center has proudly displayed space shuttle Endeavour to our guests for the past 10 years. Seeing the shuttle is amazing, but do you ever wonder what it felt like to fly Endeavour? We talked to Chris Ferguson, a former Navy pilot and NASA astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions, including one as commander of Endeavour in 2008. He shares a vivid play by play of what he saw out the window while landing at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. By the way, my favorite part of his story is how the shuttle's double sonic boom was heard across LA County. Surprising some sleepy residents on an early Sunday morning. It's always a treat to talk to astronauts, especially one who's flown on Endeavour. So join us as we hear from one of the most experienced and accomplished space shuttle commanders, Chris Ferguson. Chris Ferguson, you are a retired US Navy captain and NASA astronaut, and currently a Boeing astronaut. You flew three missions on the space shuttle, including serving once as commander of Endeavour, which is obviously near and dear to us here at the Science Center. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Ferguson (01:21):

It's great to be here.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:22):

Yeah, and Jenny Aguirre, producer and co-host of the show is also here with us. Hi, Jenny.

Jenny Aguirre (01:26):

Hey Perry. Hey, Chris. Thanks for joining us.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:28):

So Chris, uh, we're obviously very excited to talk to you today because it's really special to hear from someone who's been to space once, let alone three times on the space shuttle. Uh, you were pilot of Atlantis in 2006 on STS-115, then commander of Endeavour in 2008 on STS-126, and commander of Atlantis again in 2011 on the final mission of the space shuttle program, STS-135. So you weren't just a passenger, you were flying the space shuttle. You were in control, right?

Chris Ferguson (01:57):

Uh, yeah. They liked to, uh, let us think we're in control. Uh, and for the last, for the last couple minutes, we actually are in control. Um, it was, uh, it was very, very special, uh, just to be able to command a shuttle mission.

Jenny Aguirre (02:09):

I know that you came to visit Endeavour again at the Science Center a few months ago. Well, when you stood in front of Endeavour once more, what was going through your mind?

Chris Ferguson (02:19):

Uh. Wow. You know, there's a, there's a little special place I have in my heart for all of the orbiters. Um, I, I still remember after we landed on STS-135 saying that, um, you know, it would take a full summer. Uh, and, and I could imagine, uh, you know, dads and their children, uh, traveling the country to go visit all of the orbiters. Of course, at the time, we really didn't know where they would end up. We knew they would end up in some pretty significant cities, and it would make a wonderful summer trip to go see all of them. Uh, and, uh, you know, I like a dad and, and my kids do roll their eyes when they go and I make 'em go to a science museum. But, uh, but we did have a chance to go visit, um, the California Science Center a couple times. Uh, one was, uh, about three years ago, and then most recently, uh, I came out to see the team as they build the new facility for, for Endeavour, which is stunning, by the way. But, you know, to stand next to her again, uh, after, uh, all these years, you know, it sort of just warms my heart, uh, reminds me of the great days when, you know, you and the machine are sort of one, you know, there's a little part of me that, uh, that has a hard time believing that the tax paying Americans and NASA actually entrust this multi-billion dollar asset to, uh, to astronauts for a, you know, a period of two, two and a half weeks to, you know, leave the earth, go find the space station or whatever the mission might be, um, you know, perform the mission and then, and then bring it home all in one piece. And, uh, you know, what an incredible honor that is to do it. You know, it's a lot of pressure to make sure it all gets done right, but when it's all over, you just have this incredible sense of, you know, satisfaction and, uh, to be able to go see them. The museums now, sure, I'd love to see them, you know, stacked on a rocket ready to launch again. But, uh, but I think they've all been treated very, uh, with an incredible amount of respect. And, uh, and Endeavour is, is very special in my heart's. First mission I ever got to command. Uh, and, uh, of course we launched in Florida, but we also landed in California there, in Edward's Air Force Base. So there's, uh, an attachment between me, Endeavour and, and the, and the wonderful state of California.

Perry Roth-Johnson (04:23):

After going to space three times. This is probably a weird question to ask. Did it ever feel routine to you personally, or not at all?

Chris Ferguson (04:32):

I would say, you know, there's, uh, I, I'll call it high impact portions of the flight, you know, ascend and, and the leading the, the launch count. Um, you know, just prior to docking, um and then landing, I would say that I never got completely used to it. Uh, and, and, and, but every time I did it, I learned a little bit more. I was a little more observant. Sure. I remembered things I had observed before and I picked up just a little bit more at, you know, one, one case was the moment of liftoff, and I actually went back and read a little bit of the notes that I had read from my, um, my, my previous two flights, you know, after my rookie flight and, and every time I commented that liftoff felt a little bit more aggressive than I remember the time before.

Perry Roth-Johnson (05:24):

Oh, really?

Chris Ferguson (05:24):

And on my last flight, I remember thinking, you know, real time, wow, that's a little more intense than I remember it last time. And this sense of sort of vertical acceleration was more than I had remembered. So clearly, every time you go do this, you know, it's, it's familiar, but you learn and you process a little bit more information. I would love to go do it, you know, I would've loved to have done it a third, fourth, fifth time, uh, because every time you've got to appreciate just a little bit more of, of what you, your body was experiencing.

Perry Roth-Johnson (05:59):

This is a very imperfect analogy, but I wonder if it's kind of like watching a movie that has a lot of like granular detail and you watch it the second time, the third time and you're always like picking up on newer things every time you do it, except it's probably more immersive things.

Chris Ferguson (06:14):

Yeah, no, I, I, I actually like that analogy cause you're right, there's some movies I did not get the first time and I had to go watch 'em the second, third, and fourth time to really take it all in. You, you're right, it's a little more sort of all encompassing, you know, cause it's completely sensory, right? You've got the sound, you've got the noise, you've got the smell, you've got the vibration, you've got the heavy breathing, you know that, that is not just your own, but everyone else is in the crew you're sort of listening to. Um, but it, it is, it is completely immersive and, and I am to this day, you know, it, it's, I think the human mind is amazing. It, it has an incredible ability to process an incredible amount of information in a short period of time if it senses that that's very important information. I mean, you and I do things day in and day out where, you know, we can't remember what we did, you know, a day ago, let alone a month ago. But I remember, you know, very, um, to, you know, to a great level of detail, the moment of ascend, the moment of docking, the moment of landing, uh, for most of my space shuttle flights. And I, I, I even went back to review like, like I said earlier, some of my notes so I could be better prepared for the interview and a lot of stuff was missing that I remembered. I mean, so, you know, 15 years have gone by and, and I remembered a lot of the key details. So like I said, the human mind is amazing and its ability to record what it perceives to be very important information and not just record it in ram, you know, but record it in, you know, record it in the hard drive so you can, you can play it back, um, you know, to yourself and to others. Uh, over the course of, you know, the years.

Perry Roth-Johnson (07:59):

Now I want to focus on, you know, the three main phases of a shuttle mission. Um, you kind of alluded to them earlier. There's obviously launch, uh, the exciting part at the beginning and then orbit when you're in space and then finally landing to get you safely back home. Uh, I wanna work backwards cause I think the last phase of landing is probably the closest to flying an airplane, a really, really fast airplane. Uh, could you paint a picture for our listeners of what it was like to land Endeavour?

Chris Ferguson (08:26):

So we landed Endeavour in California at Edward's Air Force Base. And, uh, it's coming up on 14 years ago, I went and looked, I think it was December 8th, 2008, we landed. Um, it, um, the landing begins at the deorbit burn. Uh, the deorbit burn occurs on the other side of the earth. So you do a deorbit burn to land in California. You, you sort of begin the whole process over the Indian Ocean, which seems incredible. Uh, but you're, you're traveling about, um, you're traveling about 17,500 miles per hour. And what you need to do to begin your trip home is to slow yourself down ever so slightly. So we slowed ourselves down by maybe a hundred miles per hour. Alright. And, which seems trivial, but that's just enough to allow gravity to overcome the centrifugal force that's keeping you in orbit. And you slowly begin to drop, uh, you know, closer to earth, the closer you get to earth, you begin to pick up, uh, little vestiges of the outer rarefied atmosphere. And, and that creates drag, right? It begins to heat up your vehicle and it begins to slow you down, which causes you to drop further. Uh, it's amazing that we can do this, that engineers and um, you know, the folks that have designed the vehicle know exactly how it's gonna respond. So we trust them when they say, if you go do this deorbit burn, you're gonna end up at Edward's Air Force Base.

Perry Roth-Johnson (10:00):

Yeah, that's, that's crazy cause you're only going from 17,500 miles an hour, which is already a ridiculous number to 17,400 miles an hour to catch a little bit of air. Now if you slow down.

Chris Ferguson (10:12):

It, it always blew my mind. And, and everybody knew. I mean, you think about it, you have to know that the exact constituency of the atmosphere from zero to a hundred miles, you know, which is really when space sort of begins. Um, but, you know, through years and years of testing and a lot of wind tunnel work and, you know, a little bit of, I would say an educated guesswork, you know, we know exactly what the as and, and we, even the astron the atmosphere actually swells a little bit in the summertime. It heats up and the atmosphere grows a little bit and you have to factor these kind of things into the, the quarter of the, the, the, the deorbit burn problem. But, uh, but the deorbit burn begins about a half hour, 40 minutes before the actual landing. And, uh, you know, shortly after the burn, um, it, you, you don't feel any different. Right. You're still in space. Uh, it's still dark out even though the sun may be up. Right. You look out at, and it's, it's still basically space. And I think our deorbit burn occurred at night cause we landed in the morning. Um, so most of our reentry was at night, somewhere around Mach 14, about 14,000 feet per second. Uh, you begin to pick up, um, little bits and pieces of what they call plasma plasma, you know, I, I'm not a, I'm not a particle physicist, but I can explain plasma in the sense of you are slamming your spacecraft into this bits and pieces of the upper atmosphere so quickly that you are actually causing it to dissociate. You are ionizing, uh, parts of the atoms that are in the constituents, which is nitrogen and oxygen and a a little bit of carbon dioxide.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:54):

Yeah. You're almost like ripping the air molecules apart cause you're hitting them so hard.

Chris Ferguson (11:57):

Yes. Very good explanation. And it actually causes this faint pink glow, especially at night. So, outside the windows, you know, you, you, you previously were able to see stars and if you're in such an attitude, you could see the earth, but it becomes sort of cloudy. It's developed in this pink cloud of plasma that you just can't see through. It's like fog and the the interesting thing, uh, about it is, so you're ripping these molecules apart at the front of the space shuttle when, when we're impacting, when we're impacting them. But as the, the energy and, and the, the plasma cools these molecules recombined to form themselves again, and in the process they release light and heat. So you, you actually get this sort of flashing effect behind you such that at night, um, just through the overhead windows, which are the only ones that are exposed, you get a little bit of like this, uh, like a lightning effect, you know? So you're, as you're sort of popping through the atmosphere, this little flashes of lightning are occurring, uh, inside the vehicle. It's, it's almost a little eerie, a little creepy. Yeah. You know, you know it's gonna happen, but it's still like, you know, a dark stormy night. Um, and, uh. It's like, wow, that's really interesting. So, you get, you get through the whole plasma phase and that usually is where you lose communications a little bit because, um, you know, the, the, the plasma interferes with, you know, the way that the radio waves travel, uh, to Tigres our communication satellite and back to earth again. But then, uh, the plasma clears up, it's sort of like the fog is cleared, you can see out the windows again. Um, and right around then you're, I wanna say somewhere around Mach 10, about 10,000 feet per second. And by then, you know, you are, you're, you're beginning to really get into the, I won't say the thicker part, but you're getting into notice you're, you're no longer in space, you're sort of flying. So the wings that were sort of useless for a while sort of become wings and, and you can, uh, you can really begin, begin to sense the speed because there's serious clouds, those high level clouds beneath you. Um, the, the orbiter also does roll reversals to control downrange travel. Right. So it,

Perry Roth-Johnson (14:16):

Yeah, you kind of make these like S turns, right?

Chris Ferguson (14:18):

They, they're S turns. Yeah. They're hypersonic S turns, we call them roll reversals. It's just a way to manage the, your use of the atmosphere to control the drag so that when you run out of energy, right, when you're out of altitude and out of air speed, you happen to be over your landing site. It's really an interesting energy management problem. So you, you roll back and forth, so you spend actually a lot of time, um, on your side, uh, in a, like a 90 degree angle of bank. So you're able to look down and, and I remember my first sensation somewhere in the vicinity of Mach 10 to Mach 7 is watching the clouds go by and thinking, we are really going fast. I have never seen clouds go by this fast. And, you know, it's, it's just one of those, those memories that you are like, wow, this is almost surreal. You know, how, how fast I feel like I'm going. Shortly thereafter, um, in the middle of one of the roller verses, you know, I began looking on the horizon, Iowa, I wanna say Mach 5, 7, I'm, I, I can't remember the details, A little fuzzy, but you notice it's like, wow, I see that. I see Los Angeles, I see the California coast. I see we're, we're, and we're probably still 200 miles away and a hundred thousand feet, 120,000 feet, you know, off the surface of the earth. And I can see wow. Channel Islands and, and there's the California coast, there's Los Angeles, and, um, and you think, wow, it's gonna be time to land real soon. So I mean, I, I went through this whole sort of process and, and I remember so much of it vividly because there was so much to look at and thinking, you know, this is just almost surreal, you know, that you get to fly back from space and experience these kind of things. And this whole process of sort of taking 5,000, 6,000 miles just to slow down enough to land. Um, and, and of course, like I said, we landed an Air Force base at, at Edward's Air Force Base, and no sooner did it seem like we crossed the California coast that we were getting ready to turn on what's the heading Alignment cone, you know, this big turn that you do prior to landing, which is, I call it energy reservoir, but, but, uh, it, it, the, the last five minutes just goes like, it goes like that. It's very quick.

Perry Roth-Johnson (16:31):

Wow. Wow. And the shuttle makes like a double sonic boom when it's landing. So did the people in LA feel that?

Chris Ferguson (16:39):

Yeah, well I think we surprised them a little bit. Um, we had, uh, we had our final wave, uh, landing opportunity at the Kennedy Space Center waved off due to bad weather. Um, and we had the choice, you know, do you wanna wait a day and, and land at Kennedy Space Center or do you wanna land in, in, uh, at Edward's? And we decided it was just time to land at Edward's. Um, and that set us up for, I think an early morning, maybe seven, eight o'clock Sunday morning landing. It was not expected. Los Angeles was not expecting us. Everyone was probably still sleeping at seven o'clock in the morning and, uh, and we, we laid this nice little double sonic boom across the Los Angeles area. And it was funny because shortly after landing, you know, by the time we got to the tv, we turned the news on and, you know, everybody was like, oh, Los Angeles is all in a state of stir because nobody, everybody thought it was an earthquake. And, uh, we, we, we were chuckling a little bit cause we knew exactly what they were worried about. But, uh, uh, yeah, it, it's just sonic booms are really interesting. There's a, a double shockwave one that follows the front of the orbiter and one that follows the back of the orbiter. So it's just those two shockwaves, by the time they reach the ground, they're somewhat dissipated, but you still feel 'em is a, a boom boom for those who have either been at the Kennedy Space Center or in LA and heard them. Uh, so yeah, we surprised a few people on a Sunday morning, but, uh, but all was well it was a, it was a great landing and, and it was nice to, it was nice to wake them up.

Jenny Aguirre (18:09):

Let's take a step back. Let's talk about how you became an astronaut in the first place. Did you know when you were a kid that you wanted to go to space? Or did it become solidified later when you were an adult, perhaps once you were already a Navy pilot?

Chris Ferguson (18:23):

Uh, I would say the latter. Um, I, uh, I, you know, grew up, I would say, you know, in, in my very early years, you know, say when you can first remember when you're three years old or whatever until you're 10 in the Apollo years, you know, that was, uh, 1963 to 1972. And, uh, I remember it really well. As a matter of fact, um, my mom, you know, about 20 years handed me this pile of papers and she said, you'll probably appreciate this. And it's these pictures of a little lunar module in an Apollo. And, and I drew them as a kid. And I don't remember, of course, but obviously the whole thing had a, had an impact on me. Um, I, I don't know why I wanted to go fly airplanes. Um, I, there was no one in my family who was in the military. Nobody in my family was a pilot, but it just seemed to be a natural thing that I was very interested in. I, I loved the Navy and aircraft carriers and some of the stories from, you know, World War II and Vietnam, and, and I thought I'd really like to do that. So, you know, you put a couple things together and you get a technical degree. You go fly airplanes for the Navy, you get in a test pilot school, and suddenly you find yourself on a track that's very similar to, you know, the early astronauts. And, um, and you start applying and, you know, you think that, you know, that's out of my league. It's not something I can do. It's just not what, you know, people like me do. I was, uh, you know, I was in the high school band. I wasn't the captain of the football team. I was a pretty average guy.

Perry Roth-Johnson (19:56):

Um, wait, really? What, what did you play in high school band?

Chris Ferguson (19:58):

I played the drums and actually I was the drum major. Awesome. I was the drum major of the high school band for my junior and senior year. And I, I also competed in drum and bugle corp, which is a big deal for those who understand, you know, uh, Drum Corp International, DCI and, and that kind of business. And, and, uh, as a matter of fact, uh, since we, since we're digressing, I seriously think that a part of the reason that I ended up becoming an astronaut was because the astronaut band, Max Q needed a new drummer. Uh, and, uh, it was actually one of the interview questions, uh, that I remember Jim Weatherby asked me, and I thought, it's really strange until I found out that he was the current drummer in Max Q. And he, um, he was probably looking for someone who could step in for him so he could fly, go fly another space flight. Again, this is all speculation on my part, but, you know, so that's great though. Sometimes you wonder what the secret sauce is. And in my case, it may have been, you know, what I call a, um, uh, a diverse background, uh, that it consists of maybe not just all about airplanes and all about space, but a little bit of an interesting side gig. Uh, like, you know, playing in a band or, or maybe enjoying something like, you know, visiting the North Pole. I, I don't know, but the little side gigs that air that astronauts seem to have, um, you know, play into their lives, you know, both, uh, I think in the selection process. And then, uh, when they go on to, uh, you know, when they go on to become astronauts, they're, they're just inherently interesting people by nature.

Perry Roth-Johnson (21:34):

Um, but before we digress, you were saying you were, you were applying and you weren't sure if you were gonna get in. Did you have to like apply multiple times before you finally made it in?

Chris Ferguson (21:42):

I did. I was not one of the fortunate ones who, um, who managed to get selected on their first opportunity. I, uh, I applied the first time and I, I got, I don't even think I got an answer. I, I, I just got like, I, I got the hand, um, we're not interested in you. Uh, but I, I realized at the time I was a little young, you know, there's a sort of a window, if you will. Um, and I was a little young. Second time I applied, I actually got an interview, which was great. And not only did I get an interview, I was really impressed because they actually, um, brought me back. I was on deployment on the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf and, and NASA, you know, they, they flew me out of the Gulf, the Navy agreed. And, uh, so I, I flew back, uh, spent, you know, a, a couple days in the interview process, I, I stopped in, uh, home Wow. To see my lovely wife. And, and then we, it was happened to be seven months pregnant at the time, so I was sort of hoping for maybe an early delivery, but I, you know, that didn't happen and I, I had to get, I had to get back to the ship. So that was my second interview experience. And of course that was a big fat goose egg. And then, um, I applied one more time after that and, and fortunately, I, I was selected, but it, it is, it is an exercise in persistence sometimes. And I think, um, you know, that's, again, I, I do a lot of, I do a lot of talking to young men and women and tell them that, you know, dude, don't be discouraged. Right. If it's something in life is certainly worth waiting for, um, if, if it's good, right. It's certainly worth waiting for. And it, in my case, it worked out okay. But, but, uh, you gotta hang in there, right? You gotta try hard. You gotta be persistent. Um, politely persistent. Right? Not a nag just politely persistent.

Perry Roth-Johnson (23:26):

Well, it's been great talking to you, Chris. Thank you so much for your time and, you know, reliving these moments with us, helping us to understand what it was like to fly on a space shuttle. Uh, appreciate you joining us on the show today.

Chris Ferguson (23:37):

You, you bet Perry and Jenny. And thank you very much. And, uh, I, I assume that I have a open door every time I want to come out and visit the Science Center. I please invite me to the grand opening ceremony.

Perry Roth-Johnson (23:48):

Well, you, you obviously have an open invitation anytime, Chris. Um, of course. Thank you so much.

Chris Ferguson (23:53):

Oh, that's very kind of you and thank you so much. You guys are great. And thanks for all you do to continue to promote Space flight and take good care of Endeavour. You know, for me, every once in a while go out and go hug the, go hug the, the landing gear strut, you know, and say, Mr. Ferguson misses you, but, uh, take good care of her.

Perry Roth-Johnson (24:11):

We, we'll do our best. We will.

Perry Roth-Johnson (24:14):

That's our show, and thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Aguirre. Liz Roth Johnson is our editor theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show, have a question you've been wondering about. Send an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.