The surrealism of what we do

Sometimes I see where the moon hoaxers are coming from.

Okay, now that I’ve dropped that bomb (and Phil Plait is mad at me) I’ll explain where I’m coming from.

I had the privilege of working 8 of the last 11 days at a console in the mission control center. Not only that, I will get to work in MCC again for 5 days next week. I hit my hundredth flight control shift sometime late this past summer and I have been certified as an ADCO 2 years this week. My point is, I’ve been doing this a little while, and I still take my camera to work and take pictures like a tourist. Partly because I’m a geek, and partly because I’m still baffled that I get to do what I do.

Tourist or flight controller?

On Tuesday evening I was working as a HawkI* (ADCO’s support position who sits upstairs) on the last shift before Dragon arrived at ISS. The trajectory officer notified us shortly after sunset that ISS and Dragon would be flying over just north of us. Sounded like a good time for a coffee break to us.

“Is she in the right orbit, Joe?” “Sure, Bob. Looks about right.”

ISS was bright and moving fast. If you have never seen a -3 magnitude flyover of ISS, you are missing out. We watched her fly over mostly in silence, until she disappeared behind the control center building. Everyone started going back inside, it seemed we wouldn’t be able to see the SpaceX capsule that night. Everyone was about halfway back to the door when I yelled out “there it is!” A faint point of light was about a minute behind ISS following the same path.

Just because I can see those points of light and know they are two spacecraft in a chase 300 miles above my head doesn’t mean I understand it. The years of training it takes to do this job involves mostly reading word documents and staring at simulated data on a computer screen. Where is the space station in all of that? I know it’s real, and yet, the sensory input I am providing my brain in no way say “you are learning to command an orbiting laboratory moving at 17,000 mph in the near vacuum of orbit.” This is why it is easy to see where the moon hoaxers – or other historical conspiracy theorists – are coming from.

The idea that we organized our efforts to land 12 guys on the moon or build a million pound spacecraft is pretty fantastic. If I didn’t see it, why not assume it is more likely that it’s all made up? One of the arguments used by skeptics against government conspiracy theorists is that our government is not sinister and competent enough to pull off something as vast as a faked Apollo program and cover up. However, I think it might be something of the opposite. NASA’s history of successful programs are exactly a demonstration of what can be achieved by peaceful cooperation and hard work. Perhaps the conspiracy theorists are too cynical to think such a thing could ever be achieved without being botched? Well there’s a million pound laboratory flying over your head every night as proof of what we can achieve.

The ISS and Dragon fly over on Tuesday actually wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen. Last December I was working another evening shift and saw a stunning pass right over head at sunset. She came out of the sunset, passed by Venus, flew over my head for a few minutes and set behind the American flag atop the Mission Control Center. I’m not skilled enough to describe in words how it felt to see that. But on that occasion the reality of what that point of light meant did hit home.┬áBut then I thought “who’s flying that thing?!” and had to go back inside.

ISS setting over MCC (look for the faint spec about dead center)

*Stands for momentum, angular acceleration, angular rate, kinetic energy, and inertia

October 12, 2012 8:55 am

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