Archive for the ‘About Me’ Category

Movie Review – Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

It’s not often that a film gets made about your line of work. For most people, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime event. I am lucky: not only am I in a career but also an office building that attracts film productions on an annual basis. Some of the biggest movies of the past couple of years involve NASA astronauts or flight controllers: Gravity, Hidden Figures, The Martian. Nevertheless, it’s still rare for a film to focus directly on the mission operations team here on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of films get made that show the beauty and wonder of spaceflight. But in all of the IMAX movies (Space Station 3D, Hubble 3D, Journey to Mars, A Beautiful Planet) the flight controllers work quietly off-screen. Astronaut bio-pics are also a popular type of space movie, but of course in those films (In the Shadow of the Moon, The Last Man on the Moon) they are heavy on astronaut interviews and not much else. The last time a movie had NASA flight controllers as central characters was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, over two decades ago. Finally, the drought is over. The new feature length documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, has captured the soul of Houston’s Mission Control Center in a way not even Apollo 13 could.

Mission Control is based loosely on the book Go, Flight! by Rick Houston. If you read my review of the book, you’ll know that I highly recommend it. Since the film consists entirely of interviews, it diverges from the book in many ways. The two major differences is that fewer people are profiled – only 17 men are interviewed – and the focus changes from the entire 30 year history of the MOCR down to the decade of work on Apollo. The focus gives the film life in that we get to really meet and hear from the flight controllers. In fact, the only audio we hear in the whole film is either the voices of the interviewees, or TV news coverage from the Apollo era. The editing removes all need for narration or a back-and-forth with an interviewer. While some of the interviewees are astronauts (Charlie Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Jim Lovell) most of the time is spent on the flight directors and flight controllers, whom the audience will not have seen before (with the exception of Gene Kranz of course). The men are frank and emotional. We really get a sense of what it was like to figure out how to fly to the moon with no instruction manual.

Mission control movie premier

Disclosure: my wife and i were invited to the premiere, but i was not compensated for this review

Most of the stories told in Mission Control are stories you’ve heard before: the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo 11 program alarms, and Apollo 13. So you might ask, why do I need to hear these stories told again? Viewers should temper their concerns that they might be bored by the retelling. Instead, you will feel in some cases like you are hearing the stories for the first time. Hearing it from the point of view of the consoles in mission control lends a new perspective and drama that is missing from a History Channel documentary. Not to mention, the filmmakers of Mission Control were able to find a lot of very interesting archival footage that I had never seen before. The video of a technician inspecting the burned out Apollo 1 capsule while taking notes was especially unexpected and haunting.

Mission Control will certainly be enjoyed by general space fans, but it will be loved by anyone who has worked in mission control, from 1961 to today. The filmmakers do a great job of tying the history to the present day, with two brief bonus interviews near the beginning of the film with current flight directors Courtenay McMillan and Ginger Kerrick. McMillan and Kerrick discuss the strong influence of the founders of mission control on the current generation in both emotional and humorous terms (McMillan tells of referring to the movie Apollo 13 and “the guy with the buzz cut and the vest” when explaining her job to friends and family). There was a lot for me to relate to in the film, from descriptions of simulation training to the look of simultaneous fear and satisfaction on Steve Bales face when singled out for recognition by legendary flight director Chris Kraft.

NASA’s Apollo program of the 1960s was an odd moment in time. You have to wonder if those who made the moon landings happen realized the impact they had at the time; did they even realize what was going on in the outside world? Bob Carlton in the movie talks of being so busy that he neglected his family. If he had to do it all over again, he said he wouldn’t. You have to imagine they were so heads down that the social and political turmoil outside may have gone unnoticed. Gene Kranz confirms that they often got consumed with their work while planning for a mission. He says that after moving on to management work during the later Apollo missions, he found himself more appreciative of Apollo’s impact. Ed Fendell relates a story of walking into a diner the morning after the Apollo 11 landing and hearing a man say the only time he had been prouder to be an American was when he landed at Normandy in 1943.

However, we also get a sense that the men of mission control were indeed a bit insulated from anything not NASA related. Jim Lovell himself, when talking about his Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 – the first to the moon – refers to The Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit. This is a familiar story. Apollo 8 was a ray of hope at the end of a very difficult year in America. But rather than point out how Apollo 8 felt uplifting to Americans, Lovell instead says “it all just fell into place,” as if sending three men to the moon – impressive as it was – could simply erase for nearly 17,000 men lost in Vietnam (the worst of any year), the violence at the DNC, and the assassinations of RFK and Dr. King*.

This is the beauty of Mission Control. We get real insight into an era we all love, but from the nuanced and flawed perspectives of 17 men that made it happen. One historical theory of the Apollo Program is that it was a flash in the pan – a combination of leaders, money, fear, talent, and other motivations that can only come together once in a century. A key part of that recipe was Dr. Chris Kraft and his ability to take his vision of a mission control center and bring it to life by collecting an incredible team of engineers from all over the country. They were of varied backgrounds, temperaments, and leadership styles; some were abrasive; some were quiet. But all of them were committed to their task in a singular way. East coast, West coast, Midwest, southern drawl, and even son of Chinese immigrants, it didn’t matter. They were the embodiment of teamwork, giving us a lot to learn from their history.

I had a few nitpicks of the film, mostly to do with some editing choices and the omission of some of my favorite stories. The biggest mistake is that it took someone so long to make Mission Control. While the average age in mission control during Apollo 11 was younger than 30 years old, the men of that era are now approaching an average age of 80, and many important men (Jack Garman, John Llewellyn, and others) have died. Without their voices, we would be missing an important part of the tale of the origins of NASA. I am thankful to author Rick Houston for doing the extensive research that led to the book Go, Flight! and to the filmmakers for making a documentary that has so much meaning to me. Hopefully Mission Control will be successful enough to encourage someone to pursue a similar project for other eras in mission control. There are still many stories to hear from Shuttle, Skylab, Mir, and ISS. Help encourage this kind of filmmaking is appreciated by ordering Mission Control on streaming or buying the DVD (go to missioncontrol.movie). I guarantee you will learn something new!

*See Jeffrey Kluger’s new book Apollo 8 for more on 1968 and NASA’s impact.

 

My recent trip to LA

I love that the world can be both so small and so large. I don’t mean that you find yourself on vacation in Rome surrounded by millions of strangers and happen to bump into an old college friend (although those kinds of coincidences can feel quite odd). I’m referring instead to expecting to run into an old friend in a strange city because over time you seem to know someone everywhere. Family and friends move around for so many reasons – career, cost of living, or whim – and the older you get the more likely it is that you can fly to a particular city and have a friend to call on.

Now that I’ve been out of college for a number of years, I’ve realized that the same thing happens in any given field or interest area. Stay in an industry long enough and people you went to college with, worked with, interned with, or whatever, will tend to move around until you can find an acquaintance at all the important companies or institutions.

This made itself apparent this past weekend on a quick trip to the Los Angeles area to visit some friends and family. My wife and I weren’t in town at all for geeky reasons – we just wanted to see some old friends who deserved a visit – but space follows me these days. It’s not exactly amazing that we know some folks that work at Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They are old engineering friends from high school and college, after all. But just because I know someone from SpaceX – who very, very graciously offered us a quick tour of the main factory – doesn’t mean I am somehow an insider. It just means I know someone. This is a hard concept for a lot of people in this world to realize and is why you end up with groupies and name-droppers and people like that. A person needs a good dose of humility to avoid the slippery slope that leads to vanity.

This was one of those "seeing a friend in Rome" coincidences

The last Space Shuttle External Tank also happened to be in town

I received my needed dose of humility when I was led down the hall from the visitor entrance at 1 Rocket Road, around the corner past mission control, out under a flown Dragon capsule, and saw the assembly lines of tanks, engines, and spacecraft in SpaceX’s flashiest factory. After a lifetime of being a space geek, 4 years in college, a couple of internships, and 7 years working at JSC, somehow I hadn’t realized that I’d actually never visited a facility where rockets are being built.

My mind had somehow glossed over this with the illusion that I had. After all, I have been to all the famous NASA rocket parks at JSC, KSC, and MSFC, not to mention each of National Air and Space Museum’s locations a number of times. I’ve seen rockets; I’ve seen a space shuttle launch; I’ve seen a Falcon 9 launch; I’ve been inside the VAB on a tour. But seeing those places is quite different from walking into a facility where photography is not allowed (another concept foreign to me from my years at JSC) and seeing an assembly line of Merlin 1 rocket engines getting ready for integration into the famous Falcon 9 “octaweb.” The images of massive tanks being welded, payload fairings being laid up, and Dragon capsules being integrated, are burned into my mind. I have no illusions that the factory is deliberately designed to leave me in awe. But it doesn’t matter. The point probably would have been made just as well at the ULA or Orbital ATK factories: it’s a big damn world.

Flight hardware! (Photo via Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr)

 

I felt absolutely ignorant walking around that factory. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and yet many of the details of what I saw on Saturday escape me. The world is big in both these gulfs of knowledge, but also the gulfs of time and experience. I last saw my high school classmate at least many years ago, if not a decade. His experience at SpaceX, watching it grow from a struggling startup in 2008 to a dominant industry force today, is vastly different from my experience in a steady job at NASA, surrounded by the always present glory of manned spaceflight but also at the whims of politics, and the morale roller coaster that provides. He has hands on knowledge of spacecraft design, while I am one of some hundreds of people in the world who know what it is like to operate a modern manned spacecraft. This is the largeness of the world that hit home for me last Saturday.

And yet, sitting and chatting over a meal with several Virgin Galactic employees gave me a feeling of smallness, like we are all in this together regardless of badge or funding source. It occurs to me now that networking is not important just for selfish reasons of career growth. It is also important to stay out of the trap of living in a bubble, of thinking that your little slice of the world is the most important. I can’t feel good about what I do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture of what everyone is doing, not just in Houston and Los Angeles but around the world.

It is all too easy to let the size of the world become overwhelming. How can I have an influence among 5 million people in my city? A hundred million in my country? Seven billion in my world? How can I have an original idea? Surely I am not the only one to have thoughts like these from time to time. One way to make the world small again is to create and preserve relationships with other people doing the things you care about. They might show you some “flight hardware” and then you will be hard pressed not to feel motivated.

Home base report – HERA IX mission day 9

I don’t usually use this blog to post personal stuff. I’m actually quite happy with how not bloggy my blog is. However, there is something pretty cool going on in my personal life this month: my wife is locked up in a NASA simulation pretending to be an astronaut on her way to an asteroid. That’s pretty cool, so I’ll make an exception for some non-standard blogginess.

The HERA IX crew is still locked inside their habitat in Building 220 and JSC and hasn’t come out since they entered last Monday evening. Tonight will be their 10th night of 31 on their indoor camping trip. They are cut off not just physically but also virtually, with no outside communication besides mission control and a weekly family phone call. This is because one of the many experiments for this year’s HERA campaign has to do with the psychological and interpersonal aspects of being isolated with your fellow astronauts away from friends and family. If they were constantly connected via email, text message, or other forms of the internet, they could escape from that isolation and the data would not be the same.

Unfortunately, this means we can’t hear from Leah and the rest of the crew about how they are doing! The last private family call I had with Leah, or Mission Specialist 2, was last Friday. At the time, they were on mission day 4 and the crew was doing quite well. Leah said the food was very good and that everyone was getting along. The food they get to eat is the very same food that the ISS astronauts eat from the JSC food lab. In addition, they are testing out some new types of food that may get used for future Orion exploration missions because they are denser, thus saving weight.

Leah said that they had been so busy that they hadn’t had much time for down time like watching movies and reading books. Mission day 6, this past Sunday, was their first full day off so they may have got a little more relaxing in, unless mission control had some unplanned surprises for them like emergency drills! They are simulating as many aspects of spaceflight as possible including emergency drills, spacecraft maneuvers, spacewalks, and human experimentation. Just like the astronauts onboard ISS, they are doing experiments on themselves which involve saliva and blood samples, activity tracking, and all kinds of psychological and cognitive tests. Unlike the astronauts onboard ISS, they are wired up even more to get as much data s possible. Since Leah and her crew do not have real science to conduct like up on ISS, they are free to be encumbered by all kinds of trackers all over their body, including heart rate monitors, temperature sensors, and more.

Meanwhile, I’ve been left alone at home with the dog, trying to pretend my wife is really an astronaut in space. Honestly, it really doesn’t feel like that. It does feel like she’s far away – even though I can see building 220 from my desk. What it really feels like is that she’s on deployment with the military or on some other kind of dangerous job where I can’t talk to her much. I know she is quite safe, and could come home anytime if she wanted, but I at least have a small inkling now of both what it’s like to be an astronaut’s spouse and also a military spouse. You really have to respect families that have this kind of separation as a normal part of their life.

The meat of the mission is about to start. On mission day 11, this Friday, I get another private phone call with Leah (yay!) but then the HERA IX crew will go into radio silence for twelve days. The middle portion of the mission will involve a simulated communications delay with mission control as they are on “approach” to asteroid Geographos in deep space. In order to preserve the illusion, no private family calls will be allowed during the comm delay part of the mission. Their conversations with mission control will take at least several minutes round trip for every thing they say. That is going to feel like true isolation!

So while I’ll be at home feeling a bit lonely, Leah will be getting to some of the most exciting parts of the mission! When they get to Geographos, they get to do their simulated EVAs and pick up asteroid samples for scientific testing. Leah is designated as “EV1″ and gets to use the virtual reality gear to do her “spacewalk”. Pretty cool!

I can’t help but be proud of my wife and the whole HERA IX crew. It’s one thing to sit at home reading spaceflight news and tweeting about it. Getting to work in mission control and monitor spacecraft health and status data is of course awesome… but all of that feels quite silly compared to putting oneself out there as a test subject and sacrificing personal comfort to help collect data that will be used to further exploration, which is exactly what the HERA IX crew is doing. I can’t wait for Leah to come home but at the moment, I wouldn’t rather her be anywhere else than where she is right now on the front lines of NASA’s Human Research Program. Go #HERAIX!

Update: Here’s an interview with HERA project manager Lesa Spence

Busy month for ADCO on ISS

It’s always busy on the ISS – there is always at least some kind of exciting science or important maintenance activity keeping one particular set of flight controllers or another working hard. But August has been particularly busy for those of us concerned with visiting vehicle traffic and ISS attitude control. Pretty much anytime anything is coming or going, something comes inside or goes outside (spacewalks, for instance), or you need to test some thrusters or purge some fuel lines, you can bet ADCO is doing something with the ISS Motion Control System to keep the spacecraft nice and stable. Our whole job can be summed up as trying to prevent a LOAC (pronounced “low-ack”), or loss of attitude control.

The period from August 10th to September 11th is a busy final month of Expedition 44 ripe with LOAC-prone activities. Two cosmonauts crawled outside for a spacewalk back on August 10th, which includes an airlock depress that has LOAC potential. The very next day the prop lines for Progress 58 were purged overboard in preparation for the undocking on the 14th. All three of those events required special procedures to keep the station straight and level.

Next week, things are busy again with HTV5 capture and install on Monday, a thruster test for Soyuz 42 on Wednesday morning, and then the Soyuz 42 relocate on Friday, to make room for Soyuz 44 docking on September 2nd. The Expedition ends on September 11th when Soyuz 42 undocks and lands in Kazakhstan.

All of these “complex ops” (to use our common jargon) means extra team members beyond the standard skeleton crew have to staff the consoles in the control centers. The Russian visiting vehicle events can present an extra challenge for the staffing schedule as they often happen in the middle of the night, which is when the ISS tends to pass over the Russian communication ground sites. In ADCO, one of the ways that we try to ease the scheduling complexity is to have a standard rotation of “operators” on the schedule and then if some complex ops fall on a particular day, a “specialist” will volunteer to come in and help out. Generally, we like a two-person team with a front-room and a back-room flight controller, in case anything tricky or unexpected happens.

As a specialist myself, I get excited when the weekly email goes out asking for volunteers for any upcoming complex ops. Working a complex ops shift often means getting to interact with your flight control team colleagues and sending commands to the spacecraft itself. By comparison, a “quiescent” shift for ADCO involves a whole lot of not commanding to the spacecraft, hoping nothing breaks on you, not really talking to anyone, and working on the planning paperwork for upcoming complex ops. It’s of course always awesome to get to work in the mission control center on any shift, but being a part of a team to do something really exciting like dock a new spacecraft is a special privilege.

So, what did I volunteer for then? Well, it actually turns out that I’ll be helping out with all three of the complex ops next week. I’ll be the second shift for the HTV rendezvous (I take over after they’ve already grabbed it but still have to berth it) and then I’ll come back for the Soyuz thruster test and the then the Soyuz relocate itself. I actually keep a list at my desk of which types of events I have worked. Soyuz relocation events are rare and far between, so this is my first opportunity to be a part of one! I actually spent some time today sending myself calendar invites called “sleep” for next week, to make sure I get enough rest in between shifts. I actually didn’t think that was that weird until I wrote it just now. Anyway, while everyone else is looking forward to the weekend, I’m actually looking forward to Monday because that’s when the fun begins!

If you are interested in following along with next week’s events, check out NASA’s TV schedule. There should be live coverage of the HTV capture and then the Soyuz relocation.

31st Space Symposium

I imagine that my time in Colorado Springs during the week of April 13th was a lot like what some first-time attendees at the Star Wars Celebration (also occurring that week, in LA) were going through. Surrounded by geeks and famous names in my own passion, attending the 31st Space Symposium was like something you might win in a sweepstakes. Except I wasn’t there just as a fan of space. Somehow, I had managed to impress someone enough to be invited as a speaker. What? Yes, I still don’t believe it either. I guess some background is required.

When I joined Twitter in late 2008, it was mostly because it seemed like something the cool kids were doing, and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t hip. I didn’t think I would use it much. I definitely didn’t think I would find 2,000 people out there who wanted to hear about my job at NASA. It turns out that Twitter, or social media in general, is a great way to stay in touch with the things you care about in the world, and to connect with like-minded people, no matter where they live. This is how I ultimately ended up on stage at the 31st Space Symposium last week, talking about my job as an ISS flight controller. A fellow flight controller, half a world away in Germany, followed me on Twitter and recommended my name as a good representative of the Houston mission operations community for a panel she was helping to organize. It seems like a 21st century idea – to give a professional recommendation for someone you have never met face-to-face!

Our panel, called “Controlling the ISS: Global Collaboration and the Contribution of Young Professionals” was made up of four of us from ISS ops: one each from Houston, Huntsville, Germany, and Japan. Our moderator, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao, was commander of ISS during Expedition 10, his last of four flights to space. Getting ready for the conference was a bit like what we do daily in the ISS program; we had to find a good time for a Google Hangout video conference across 4 time zones in 3 countries. Our first “hangout” all together was at 6 AM in Houston, noon in Germany, and 8 PM in Japan! Our second hangout was at the Space Foundation’s Yuri’s Night party in Colorado Springs, two days before our panel!

It was a unique experience to find oneself with so much in common with people from literally all over the world. Culturally, we are from at least 3 totally different backgrounds (two of us being American) but we share a common language in ISS operations speak. I learned throughout the symposium that this is a theme of the space business these days, and is exactly why the Space Foundation put our panel together. There is a large industry of space and space-related companies and organizations out there, all trying to do similar things. Why allow the barriers of politics, geography, and culture to stand in the way of a shared passion? It was international collaboration that has made the ISS so successful, a success very visible to everyone else trying to do big things in space. Even the military panels had discussions about how cooperation and collaboration across international borders is the path to global space security, and the ISS is often referenced as a model for those efforts!

Our panel was just a one hour session in a full week of panels, speakers, and technical forums. We had a marginal audience of maybe a hundred people – there were concurrent sessions about satellite design, military space situation awareness, and of course the ever buzzing exhibit hall was open. So I feel content that we had a decent audience at all – not to mention Bill Nye came to listen. The pressure was on… one of my childhood heros was going to listen to me talk…

One hour of talking goes really fast when you have 5 people on stage, but we managed to cover some good ground: from what it takes to be a flight controller, to working with the Russians, to challenges of international collaboration, to the Chinese space program, and more. My co-panelists of course had some great things to say, but I thought I would recap a bit of what I covered, since it is what I remember the best!

When prompted by Chiao to address the impact of the Ukraine crisis and other geopolitical tensions on ISS, I noted that we don’t see the effect of politics at all at the working level. I explained that the mass media’s narrative of the program, with Russia holding all the cards, misses the big picture. The Russians can’t just stop flying NASA’s astronauts to the space station as a political tool if they want to keep the station running. Successful ISS operations is not one-sided, but involves contributions from all partners. Russia provides our launch vehicle but NASA brings much to the table also. I gave the example of how the Russian thrusters and American gyroscopes (CMGs) are both needed together if we intend to fly ISS for another decade. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The ISS needs both Russia and the US equally, in its current operational model.

When China was discussed, Chiao asked us “if the political issues were overcome, what would it take to add China to the program?” something I learned from Andrea (my co-panelist from Germany) is that ESA already has a relationship with the Chinese program and their astronauts learn Chinese. As for NASA, we currently don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese program (it is tricky, since they do not have a clear delineation between civil and military space industry). I did note that adding any new player to ISS, no matter who they are, would present challenges, especially if they would be a new equal partner. Processes like mission management teams and flight rule boards would require additional coordination. I also pointed out that the current relationship NASA has with Russia did not start with ISS. Following the fall of the USSR, we built a relationship of trust through stages of operations such as flying astronauts on each others vehicles and then with the Shuttle-MIR program. A similar phased in approach would be needed with China or any new country that we have never worked with before.

I also fielded a question about debris avoidance on ISS which allowed me to give the example of the Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM), which is a triumph of international collaboration. The procedure allows the US mission control team to direct the crew to send the reboost command, using the russian segment computers and rocket engines, even if none of the Russian planning team is on duty in Moscow. This capability enables more rapid response to a debris threat but also requires a great level of trust on the part of our Russian friends. I think this is a great example of the successful partnership we have built with the ISS. When asked about the future of spaceflight, I remarked that it would be wise for any future programs, no matter where we go, to be an international endeavor. It would be a shame to waste the lessons we have learned since the concept of Shuttle-MIR was formed in the 1990s.

We even had time to field a few good questions from the audience, including the predictable “what would you tell someone who wants to be a flight controller?” Fortunately, we talk about this often at work, so I explained that even though our intent is to hire steely-eyed engineers with great technical knowledge and aptitude, we don’t put a huge emphasis on grades when hiring. More important is a proven ability to learn and adapt and especially to work with other people and communicate clearly. I spend infinitely more time in my job communicating in many ways (verbal, email, console logs, etc) than doing any math that looks anything like what I studied in college. Mission operations is all about working in a team environment.

The Space Symposium this year placed an emphasis on young professionals with an entire track for “New Generation Space Leaders”, featuring an evening reception with Bill Nye and a luncheon with Dr. Ellen Ochoa (astronaut and director of JSC) as keynote speaker. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those “New Gen’ers” who came up to us after our panel and thanked us for sharing about working in the ISS program. Before the Symposium, I imagined my fellow young professional attendees to be made up primarily of young engineers excited about New Space – wanting to build rockets with SpaceX, Xcor and Virgin Galactic, and not interested in the slow bureaucracy of NASA. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong! It turns out most everyone still thinks NASA is cool, and wants to hear about working there. We even had a few people try to give us their resumes… of course I gave them some advice, but had to tell them to just check the job postings online!

One of my favorite things I noticed was that almost every booth in the exhibit hall, and all of the videos played at award dinners and luncheons, tended to utilize imagery of the ISS at some point. Even the FedEx booth had the ISS on their booth’s banner, with the phrase “mission control” prominently displayed. They very much want to help out with ISS – by transporting precious experiments and cargo to the launch site, or home from splashdown.

One lesson I have learned from this Symposium is that NASA and the ISS program should be very proud of the example we are setting, and should not be shy about telling our story, because it is a good one. At the same time, it is a wide world of spaceflight industry out there, with thousands of people working on their own projects, regardless of NASA. If we don’t keep up with them, they will leave us behind. That is why I am honored that my company and NASA trusted me to attend the conference based on an invite obtained through social media. It is also why it is great to see NASA embracing social media in the broader context – giving astronauts free reign to post to Twitter without a pre-screening (at least it looks like there is no pre-screening!) and allowing so many flight controllers, flight directors, and others to engage with the public online.

With the ISS program now solidly moved from “assembly” to “utilization” phase, and with social media now something most of the world understands and uses, I have a new confidence that the general public will learn about the ISS and the space program and will be supportive of further exploration. The days of meeting people on the street who don’t even know we have a permanent space station are coming to a close – at least that is my hope! I do realize that going to a conference full of other space geeks is like going into a bit of an echo chamber. But my confidence comes from the support across programs and companies for the future of space. No longer do you hear other space fans referring to the ISS as an expensive “boondoggle” – at least not at the Space Symposium.

And regardless, even if some do still feel that way about the ISS, the symposium showed me that the space industry is a big place. For instance, even if Sierra Nevada doesn’t get the ISS cargo contract for their Dream Chaser, they have agreements with Japan and Germany to use the vehicle – it will get built anyway. A lot of wheels are turning and there are a lot of people out there doing amazing things. The Symosium had panels about the new Europa clipper mission (and the advantages of flying it on an SLS), about constellations of satellites providing broadband internet to the world, about the United Arab Emirates’ new space agency. The list goes on. For me, a young engineer who has only had one job and has not really traveled abroad, going to the Space Symposium was like leaving home for the first time and seeing the size of the world. There is so much to do, so let’s work together and get it done!

Expedition 40: Beginnings and Endings

The International Space Station program is unique in spaceflight in that it holds the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at over 5,000 days. The longevity of the program puts people like myself in a distinct and strange position: despite being a moderately experienced flight controller with over 5 years of experience, the start of Expedition 1 in November 2000 is distant history to me. Do you know where I was when Soyuz TM-31 launched that Fall? Taking Algebra and French in 8th grade. As far as my professional career is concerned, the ISS has always been there. There was no beginning – it just was.

Being the lead ADCO, or guidance officer, for Expedition 40, has been an outstandingly challenging and rewarding experience. Taking over the reigns of something with so much history and meaning and trying to learn to steer is a bit terrifying. I imagine that it’s a bit like what stepping into the Oval Office on the first day is like, although with significantly less pressure and responsibility. There are already so many pieces in motion when you step in – people doing their jobs, mostly quite well, who don’t care that a new guy is running the show. And of course, the space station didn’t reset the day Expedition 40 began. Any issues that came up in Expedition 39 (bugs in software, worn down mechanical systems, lost cargo) are still there when the shiny new Expedition 40 patch is velcroed to the side of the Flight Director console in FCR-1. There are people working those issues: running failure investigation teams, rewriting flight rules and procedures, and planning cargo manifests. That daily grind carries no Expedition number. It is simply the work that needs to be done day in and day out until the last expedition comes home.

Which brings us to endings. There’s a cliched question you are supposed to get asked at a job interview: “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” This question is used because 10 years is a long time. Long enough that your career should have progressed forward in some important way – maybe you moved on to management or got assigned to some new project, or maybe you don’t even want to do the same job for 10 years. Hence the interview question. Will I still be doing this job in 10 years? I don’t know. Based on the average rate that flight controllers move on to new things, I likely won’t still be in ADCO. But one thing is fairly certain: there will still be ADCOs. The ISS is planned to be flying until at least 2024. So the end is just as distant as the beginning. A child born on the day Bill Shepard launched to the ISS in 2000 could easily be manning the ADCO console when we send the space station into the Pacific in 2024, or later.

So when Expedition 40 ends tomorrow with the undocking and landing of Steve Swanson, Aleksandr Skvortsov, and Oleg Artemyev, isn’t it an ending? When Commander Steve Swanson shook Maxim Suraev’s hand today during the change of command ceremony it was the end of Expedition 40 and the beginning of Expedition 41. The return to earth of an ISS astronaut is an end to a long journey that includes years of training and preparation. For some astronauts like Chris Hadfield, who retired from the agency after he commanded ISS on Expedition 35, the return to Earth can signal the end to an important chapter of life and the chance to start something new. But at the same time, that handshake today was just the latest in a long line of handshakes that started with Bill Shepard and Yury Usachev in August 2001 when Expedition 1 ended and Expedition 2 began. Swanny and Max’s handshake was preceded by Swanny and Koichi, Koichi and Oleg, Oleg and Fyodor, Fyodor and Pavel, Pavel and Chris, and so on. So while we may choose to label tomorrow’s undocking with some importance as a minor beginning or ending, the reality is that that handshake really represents the continuation of something important and lasting.

In human spaceflight, as with many other difficult technical endeavors, the job is about building on the work of those that came before you. When the ISS elapsed time clock ticks over from 5,063 to 5,064 days tomorrow night, nothing will have begun nor ended. Instead, something amazing will continue. What a privilege to help keep it running for the 103 days of Expedition 40. Here’s to 5,000 more.

“Always plan your vacation on launch day”

You may be wondering what happened to this blog. Then again, you may have forgotten it existed, since so many higher quality space news outlets already exist online. I will take the lack of complaints as a sign not too many were listening to begin with. In any case, to be fair to myself, I have an excuse for the silence: I was busy jinxing rocket launches.

I already explained in my previous post about taunting the space station that even the highly technical minded people of mission control – we who will say “negative” or “copy” in social conversation with friends – are as superstitious as everyone else. You simply don’t mention on a slow night that its been an easy shift. The space station will hear you and she will remind you that “space is hard” if she feels bored. This superstition goes beyond the walls of the flight control room and bleeds into our personal lives.

I had the great frustration and privilege this year of having to consider rocket launch manifests when planning my vacations. As a newly minted ADCO “specialist” flight controller, whether I am in town or not actually matters. But just to create some conflict, 2014 is a big year for me at home as well: my dad and I wanted to go on an epic 10 day road trip through California for his 60th birthday; my parents are meeting my fiance’s parents in Hawaii in June (a trial run for the wedding in October).

Staring at the ISS flight manifest last fall, the SpaceX cargo mission – my first lead assignment – looked like it would be all wrapped up by mid-January. No problem for the March road trip. But we all know space is hard; launches slip. I decided to wait another month or two to book the tickets…

Four months later it was early January and SpaceX was now to launch sometime in February, and I still had no confirmed reservations for the big trip. Launch day had already moved twice but the Dragon capsule was still scheduled to splashdown in the Pacific before my dad and I were to meet up in Sacramento. Do I book the non-refundable tickets? If the mission slips again into March do I go on the trip or not? Being a flight lead for such a big mission only 5 years into my career had been exciting and rewarding – with many hours of work put in since we became the “prime” team when SpaceX-2 splashed down in March 2013. I wasn’t going to miss rendezvous day. But with two launch slips already I was starting to learn a lesson: no one person can control or predict the manifest. During a lunch break of a joint simulation with SpaceX in January I made reservations for our trip. Time to cross my fingers.

I bet you can guess what happened next. Two weeks later the launch date had moved again, now only 5 days before I leave for California. Starting to get worried. Then in February, it slips to the day before I get back from the trip – Ack! – but if my flight is on time I will be home in time to be in the control center for rendezvous. Well, of course, I go on the trip and launch slips again into April. Guess I never had to worry.

All in all, the SpaceX cargo flight had 8 different official launch dates (see Wikipedia). I did ultimately get to fly the rendezvous I helped to plan, on April 20th. Just last week I was on console for Dragon’s departure from ISS – occurring late enough to fall in the “Increment”* for which I am also lead. This is not a knock on SpaceX; it is just the name of the game. Space Shuttle flights slipped for all kinds of reasons as well. I once drove all the way to Florida to watch STS-133 launch only for it to be cancelled 18 hours prior and launch about 5 months later.

If I had paid more attention as a rookie flight controller I wouldn’t have had to learn this lesson through experience. The folks that have been around at least a few years longer had the opportunity to be flight leads for Shuttle flights. That’s rock star stuff right there – especially now that we are in the gap years. Listening to them talk, you would realize that they aren’t joking when they talk about planning vacations on launch day. I have even heard of wedding dates being picked in this way.

It’s not a joke, but a true superstition just like “don’t taunt the space station”. If one wants to jinx a mission, don’t plan an important vacation right on top of it. Fate will slip that launch right into your family trip to Disneyland. As for me, I’m no longer worried about the in-laws trip next month. When I first asked for a 6-day leave in the middle of my lead increment last year I was worried about misplaced priorities. But the manifest looks nothing the same, and if something comes up, I have a backup lead to take my place. Even at such an awesome workplace, its probably not healthy to be married to the job. So in a way it’s just an affirmation of proper priorities and trust in the team to always plan to be somewhere on a beach on launch day.

*Increment is what we call the time period during a specific Expedition aboard ISS.

Sharing the View

Another week in mission control is done for me. Newly rested flight controllers are taking over for the weekend to prepare for the arrival of a new cargo spacecraft on Sunday morning. To celebrate my 5 year anniversary at JSC yesterday, I thought I’d share some pictures I took in the flight control room this week. After 5 years, I am still a tourist! Enjoy, and have a good weekend!

The American Northeast

Lower Texas Coast and South Padre – future home of SpaceX?

Moon rise from orbit

Cygnus on the launchpad moments before launch

Fresh fruit delivery!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Parabolic Arc has a quick summary of the history of NewSpace suborbital launches, based on some tabulated data from the FAA. It is interesting to see the number of (or lack of) launches for some companies. You can really see how SpaceX is the only reall success story so far.

On the almost success story front, there is Virgin Galactic who did another SpaceShipTwo flight on July 25. Disappointingly, it was only a glide test for pilot training. Everyone is hoping SpaceShipTwp will make its first trip to space before the end of the year.

And then at the bottom is Armadillo Aerospace, which is one step away from being simply a failure story of NewSpace. Armadillo blew up a rocket early this year and hasn’t flown since. Recently John Carmack (owner and investor) announced at a conference that the company is “going into hibernation” because it is out of money and he doesn’t want to sink any more cash in it.

NewSpace aside, there is a bit more drama going on – like the mess that is the Russian space program and its politics. The prime minister publicly called out Roscosmos head Popovkin for the recent Proton rocket failure (the spectacular crash you can see in an earlier post here). Popovkin was hired just a couple of years ago to take over the space program after several other high profile failures. Surprisingly, the Proton rocket is expected to fly 4 to 5 more times this year, with the return to flight coming as soon as next month.

In Orbit

In what is perhaps a revealing indication of where the Russian space program’s priorities really come from, the plan to fly an Olympic torch to the ISS for a spacewalk in time for the winter games in Sochi, Russia, is coming together. The crew of Soyuz flight TMA-11M even have a mission patch design that includes an Olympic flame element.

On Saturday, August 3rd, the fourth Japanese cargo resupply craft, HTV-4, launched from Japan on the way to ISS. The mission will arrive for rendezvous on early Friday morning.

I am assigned to the day shift (7-4) in Mission Control every day this week, so I am lucky enough to have the first shift after rendezvous, where the team will maneuver HTV on the end of the Space Station’s robotic arm to “berth” or attach to the ISS to deliver its cargo.

Look at ISS tracker websites like www.heavens-above.com over the rest of the week for upcoming ISS passes overhead – as you might also catch sight of a much fainter HTV in chase. There is a bright pass over North America tomorrow morning at around 4-5 AM. ISS will be visible in Houston at exactly 5 AM.

In what might be a pretty good PR move, NASA is advertising an upcoming research opportunity… to use twins to study the affect of long duration spaceflight. How? Well when Scott Kelly flies to ISS for a year in 2015, he will come home with 10 times more days in space than his twin brother, Mark Kelly. I’m no biologist or geneticist, but I imagine that being twins, there are some variables this can isolate to better understand what will be happening to Scott during his long flight. Its a very cool offer for the Kellys to make, considering Mark is retired.

I put this news item under the “In Orbit” as a show of hope: NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS (worst name for a rocket I’ve ever seen) , completed Preliminary Design Review at the end of July. Here’s hoping this project can stay near budget and get American back to space soon.

Around the Solar System

Happy Birthday to the Mars rover Curiosity, who has spent one year on the Martian surface as of today! Check out Phil Plait’s post for a cool timelapse of the last 365 days on Mars. It’s a great video, but a bit disappointing because of how little Curiosity has actually roved so far. Here’s to more roving in the next year! Really we shouldn’t celebrate for another 322 days, since the Martian year is about 687 days long… and let’s face it, Curiosity is a Martian.

Because it’s Cool

Check out this picture of 4 funnel spouts at once in the ocean off of Italy.

Spacewalk Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up at 4 AM to go in early for my day shift at ISS mission control. I am assigned to the regular day shift from 7 AM to 4 PM all week. It just so happens that the first shift is the same day as a Russian ISS spacewalk. Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Aleksandr Misurkin will perform the 33rd Russian spacewalk onboard ISS. You can read all about what they will be working on over at Spaceflight101.com.

While I will be working a long 11 hour shift starting early in the morning, I am definitely still looking forward to it. This will be my first time in the Flight Control Room for a spacewalk. I previously supported from the Multi-Purpose Support Room for US EVA 20 last fall, with a more experienced flight controller in the ADCO seat. Being assigned a shift as ADCO for an important event like a spacewalk is definitely a lot of responsibility to take on. But ADCO has relatively little to do for most spacewalks when compared to many other flight controllers and support personnel who have a direct responsibility to the safety of the crew and the tasks being performed. If my ADCO team does our job well tomorrow, we will actually do and say very little for all 11 hours we are there.

One important task we have is to send commands related to disabling the Russian Segment thrusters late in the EVA. There are some maintenance tasks that will take the cosmonauts close enough to the back end of the Russian Service Module that flight rules dictate all thruster valves closed for safety reasons. We will be monitoring the spacewalk progress closely to make sure we are ready for disabling thrusters as needed.

Other than that, it will be an exercise in listening and patience. I would say it is an exercise in bladder management also, but at least I am allowed to leave the room briefly for breaks during the spacewalk. The cosmonauts will have to go probably close to 8 hours without food and bathroom breaks. And that’s why I’m not complaining about my 4 AM alarm. Bring on the shift!