A Week Flying the ISS – Day 1

Monday, December 5th (GMT 340)

This week I am working “Orbit 1”, or the first shift of the calendar day in Houston. For the next seven days I have to be at work at 11 PM every night. Handover lasts an hour and my shift starts at Midnight and goes until 8 AM. I was on vacation in San Antonio this past weekend so I haven’t tried very hard to “sleep-shift” or help my body adjust to the new schedule. I stayed up until about 2 and slept maybe six hours. The trick to being fresh for Orbit 1, I find, is to take a nap from 9 PM to 10 PM so that I wake up just before work like I would while working normal hours. I get up and shower, get dressed, make coffee, and pack a lunch just like any Monday morning – just with less snoozes.

It is expected that a flight controller be up to date – to the day – on what has been happening “on console” by reading the logs that are emailed out every morning. I am generally good about staying current but I haven’t read the logs from Saturday or Sunday when I show up Monday night. Fortunately, December is shaping up to be a quiet month for the Motion Control System (MCS) and there isn’t much of anything to catch up on – in fact one shift was so slow on Saturday night that not a single log entry was recorded.
A hallmark of being an ADCO on an Orbit 1 shift is that talking to the Flight Director is rare. I am used to the only things I say all night being “Good evening Flight. MCS is nominal and I have nothing on the plan” during shift handover. Today is a little different because there is an OBT on the plan.

OBT stands for On Board Training. OBTs are a training exercise or simulation with the participation of the astronauts who are really in space. Or put another way, they are fire drills on the space station. Astronauts and flight controllers train for emergencies until the reactions become second nature. But we do OBTs because there is no substitute for a dry-run on the real ISS. You never know, maybe the fire extinguisher isn’t actually where you practiced it was in the ground trainer?

Today’s OBT is a “rapid depress” case for the three Expedition 30 astronauts who just arrived in November. The case involves a hole in the space station that will vent all of the air into space within a few hours. Everyone has the script for the case, including the crew, so there aren’t really any surprises. “The messages are in alarm and you hear the tones” – and we’re playing.

There aren’t many duties for an ADCO to perform for a rapid depress case so I am mostly just watching. It’s more exciting than a normal night shift but it’s hard to get any other work done while paying attention to the drill. In a real rapid depress my life would be a lot more complicated due to the affect of the force from the venting air on our attitude control. But since the script is crew-focused I get to pretend that a 1.4 inch hole in the ISS hull isn’t going to cause us to lose control – yeah right.

The astronauts spend about an hour trying to find the leaky part of the space station. The script ends with a worst case scenario – the Soyuz capsule is the culprit and there’s nothing they can do but prepare to abandon ISS as soon as possible. Fortunately the OBT is over before we have to plan for that.

And with that, the most exciting part of the night is over at about 2 AM. Six more hours to go. I always try to keep myself focused by working on my office to do list. But it’s Tuesday morning at 4 AM and I just can’t think very straight anymore. I’ve gone from productive-flight-controller mode to just-trying-to-stay-awake mode. Coffee number 5 helps.

Watch the Earth float by on “the big board” for a few more hours and finally it’s 7 AM. The bustle of a new day definitely perks me up as the Orbit 2 shift flight controllers arrive for handover. Since it’s a slow week, handover is speedy and we are “released” by 7:30. And that’s a good thing because I am tired. That’s what I get for “slam shifting” the first night. Fortunately, happy hour is waiting for me at home, and then bed. One day down, six to go.

(ISS on-orbit status for today)

December 7, 2011 5:20 pm

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