Archive for the ‘About Me’ Category

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

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!

Weekly Links

As I wrote about in my last post a week ago, ISS ops have been very busy lately. We were able to unberth and release the SpaceX Dragon capsule last Tuesday morning, as planned. It splashed down a few orbits later in the Pacific, while I was asleep, and was successfully picked up by SpaceX’s contracted recovery ship. I only got a bit of a rest after the Tuesday morning night shift as I had to work the day shift back in the control room Wednesday through Friday. More on what I got to do and see those days in the “In Orbit” section below. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the delay in posts lately. But you don’t really care – on with the space news!

Down to Earth

In a bit of grim space politics news – unless you are all about commercial only, I suppose – last week NASA’s 2013 budget finally became clear after the US Congress passed a big spending bill. The bill is better than the continuing resolutions* that a lot of the US government has been dealing with for a while – but it does nothing about the “sequestration” cuts across all Federal departments. This means that NASA ends up with greater than a 7% cut on the 2011 and 2012 funding levels. Ouch.

*A continuing resolution is simply an agreement to fund agencies or programs at the previous years levels because no agreement can be made on a new budget.

Masten Space Systems’ Xombie vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle recently made its longest and highest flight to date, soaring over 500 meters according to their press release (no video yet available that I can find). Masten is using a guidance system developed by Draper Labs (of MIT) in order to build a testbed type craft on which NASA or other customer’s can test planetary landing instruments “without leaving home”, so to speak. I wrote about a similar test of the Xombie systems over a year ago, so this project has been in development for a while. This flight was ten times higher than the test last year.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has started a crowdfunding project at IndieGoGo to try to pay for NASA’s video “We Are the Explorers” to be run in American theaters before the movie Star Trek Into Darkness this spring (no, I don’t want to discuss if I capitalized that title correctly).

This is a clever, and apparently legal, way to get around the advertising ban that NASA is under. I donated!

Speaking of space cinema, a new IMAX movie was announced that will feature Earth photography from space. The film is being co-produced by Disney, and no release date or title has been announced.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of – who seems to be trying to compete – sponsored an expedition that has raised an F-1 rocket engine straight off the sea floor in the Atlantic. They do not know for sure which rocket the engine(s) came from, but they do intend to restore and display them. It seems they would likely be displayed at the Smithsonian; partly because the engines are still technically NASA’s property.

In Orbit

After Dragon left, the biggest event aboard ISS in the past two weeks was the docking of Soyuz 34 (or 34S to us) last Thursday only 5 hours and 45 minutes after launch. This was a new quick rendezvous profile that had previously only been used on flights of the unmanned Progress resupply spacecraft.

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The Soyuz brought two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin – and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The speed of the launch-to-docking timeline was impressive even to those of us tied into ISS operations. As I was on the day shift Thursday, I had the privilege of giving a “Go” for launch at the end of my shift – and the colleague who I handed over to started prepping ISS systems for Soyuz arrival right after I left! I heard that the Soyuz reached ISS before the NASA personnel who were in Kazakhstan for the launch made it back to Moscow…

Amazingly, ISS Commander Chris Hadfield got this shot of Baikonaur at the moment of Soyuz ignition (by the laws of orbital mechanics, ISS often passes right over the location of launch for many ISS supply missions).

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Speaking of which, if you haven’t been following ISS Commander Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_hadfield) on Twitter, you are seriously missing out on some stunning high resolution Earth photography posted nearly in real-time.

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Also, the epic timelapse photography from the ISS Cupola… (via APOD).

Or if you want the more practical, here’s how to brush your teeth (I wasn’t originally going to share this until I heard the music kick in halfway through and started laughing).

Around the Solar System

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon (or just Lemmon for short) is set to start being a target for skywatchers this week (depending on your latitude). From the finder charts, it looks like Lemmon will still be too close to the sun at sunrise for most observers to have a chance at. Later in the month, Lemmon will move higher in the sky at dawn and may turn out to be as bright or better than Comet PanSTARRS which some of us enjoyed last month. Of course, the catch is that Lemmon will be a morning object rather than an evening object, so is likely to attract fewer hunters. You can bet I will try to see it!

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos (of Russia) formally signed an agreement last month to move forward with their Exomars mission, which will consist of orbiters and a rover to be flown to Mars later this decade. This is the big mission that NASA had to pull out of due to budget reasons.

New research using the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii has revealed compelling evidence for the nature and composition of undersea ocean’s on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Read a great summary of the research at Phil Plait’s blog.

Taming Dragons

It is 8 PM on Monday night, March 25, but if you asked me what day it was when I woke up this morning I don’t know how accurate the answer would be – I have been awake on odd hours since Friday. I am headed into work in 2 hours to work a night shift – 10 PM to 8 AM. Usually the night shifts start at 11 PM in ISS mission operations, but tonight the ISS crew is getting up early – at about 4 AM on their clock – so we have to get there early as well. Usually on a night shift in the ISS Flight Control Room you would expect to see 5 to 10 people, but tonight there will be well over 10 for the unberth and departure of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, the 3rd to visit ISS.

As far as NASA TV is concerned, the action happens tonight (or tomorrow morning, if you prefer). They will cover the departure and landing of the capsule tomorrow intermittently – just the exciting bits. But as with most things in this job, the successful execution of an event is really just the last step. Last Thursday morning there was a big ISS management meeting (the IMMT, or ISS Mission Management Team) wherein the Monday morning departure of Dragon was approved. Just 24 hours later I found myself in another ISS operations meeting listening to SpaceX explain why they had to delay departure and de-orbit due to bad weather forecasts for the Pacific landing zone. Suddenly instead of comfortably heading into the weekend with a great Monday morning plan, we were trying to get a one day slip plan together before close of business. We had a working meeting with everyone from the planning team, from systems specialists to flight surgeons, to discuss how to easily do the replan. A replan is more complicated than just saying “we’ll do it the same time tomorrow” because of the multiple space agencies and scientific institutions with a stake in day-to-day operations aboard ISS.

So, long story short, I put a few extra hours in and worked until 6 on Friday – not bad – while I know some other people put in more hours over the weekend working on the plan. Up in space, the astronauts got an extra day to pack cargo that is supposed to be sent back home on Dragon. The hatch was closed today, and the crew should be asleep now, with a long day ahead tomorrow. The crew is closely involved with both the unberthing process (taking out the bolts holding Dragon to ISS) and then the procedures to let go of Dragon with the station robotic arm.

This will be my first time supporting a “free-flyer*” docking or undocking – I will be in the MPSR (or Multi-Purpose Support Room) while a more experienced ADCO sits in the main Flight Control Room. The motion control system is a key part in free-flyer release, so I will be excited to monitor the system and even get to send some important commands tonight. If you want to follow along on NASA TV, release is planned at about 7 AM (Eastern) on Tuesday (maybe a few minutes early or late). And for the real geeks, I would suggest pulling up ISS Live, which lets you monitor live ISS telemetry. You can use my post from HTV-3 rendezvous to get a sense of what events will be happening (release is basically just a rendezvous in reverse).

*Free-flyer refers to all visiting vehicles to ISS for which rendezvous involves capture with the SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System). This inclues SpaceX Dragon, JAXA’s HTV, and Orbital Cygnus.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The bad winter weather hasn’t been a problem down here in Texas, of course – but we’re all thinking of our friends in the Northeast that are snowed in. Here’s a NASA satellite timelapse of the blizzard that has been affecting the East coast.

Tomorrow night, Orbital Sciences Corporation will be doing a “hot fire test” on their launch pad in Virginia. the test is in preparation for their first test flight to ISS later this year.

In Orbit

Listen to this duet between Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and ISS astronaut Chris Hadfield… recorded during Hadfield’s current stay in orbit.

Here is a video of Chris Hadfield’s live discussion with William Shatner last week.

In ISS ops, it has been a busy few days. early Friday morning the ISS did a long maneuver (with myself happily monitoring from the ground!) from facing forward to facing directly backwards to prep for the Progress 48 cargo craft to undock early Saturday morning, which happened as planned (unless you are a huge geek the video below is pretty boring).

Then ISS stayed in that backwards attitude over the weekend awaiting the new Progress 50 cargo craft, which launched earlier today and just docked to ISS at just before 4 PM Eastern.

Since those docking ops are complete, the ISS will be maneuvered back to the normal flight attitude on the night shift tonight (early Tuesday morning). Once again, I have the privileged responsibility of being the guidance and control officer for the maneuver. This will be about the 4th major activity I have worked in the front flight control room for since my most recent certification last year. Very exciting!

There were actually two launches today. In addition to the Progress supply vehicle, NASA launched the LDCM out of Vandenberg in California. LDCM is an Earth observation mission.

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has done its first drilling on Mars.

There is open public voting at to name the 4th and 5th moons in the busy Pluto system. Voting is only for the next two weeks. You can write-in suggestions if you do not like the list of names they already have.

Live in the Southern hemisphere? Then comet Lemmon may be visible to you if you have a small telescope.

Twelve years

On Friday last week, the ISS passed the milestone of 12 years of crewed flight. Expedition 1 docked on November 2, 2000 and over 200 people have visited since.

Twelve years is a bit less than half of my lifetime. In the fall of 2000 I was starting my 8th grade year in middle school. That was the time in my life when I was becoming a book nerd, but I was just discovering more serious literature. Until then my sci-fi reading consisted of Star Wars. I knew I was a space geek but like most pre-teens, especially those growing up on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I didn’t much follow what was going on in current events. However, it was at that time that many people had already spent a big chunk of their careers on the ISS program (or Space Station Freedom, or Space Station Alpha, etc.). All of that work was paying off in the initial launch and assembly of a real laboratory in space occupied by Krikalev, Gidzenko, and Shepherd.

So, considering that the ISS was launched and occupied while I was still a 12-year-old geeking out over Star Wars Episode I, coming into the ISS program as a newbie fresh-out of college in January 2009 felt like jumping into an already well oiled operations program. But now almost 4 years later I have seen a whole third of the ISS occupied lifetime. I now understand high performance, high risk operations well enough to know they were still learning in 2009 when I showed up, and we are still learning now.

It’s hard to describe why spaceflight is different in this respect from other types of flight operations. The airlines that operate Boeing 737 airliners – flying for the past 45 years – don’t consider their flight programs to still be “experimental” or “developmental.” Those are reliable pieces of engineering that can be trusted to fly millions of  people on thousands of flights a year. The ISS, however, is whizzing by several hundred miles overhead. It’s hard to get the mechanics out to take a look at a problem between “flights” like on an airliner – because there is no between. The ISS must continually function well enough fly straight and keep 2-6 people alive. All repairs must be done in flight by a few trained astronauts – who may or may not have mechanical backgrounds – and who have to be trained in several dozen specialties. The successful spacewalk by Expedition 33 crew members Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide* last Thursday was sort of like a Southwest Airlines mechanic going out on the wing while at cruising altitude to check the hydraulic pressure of the ailerons – if you don’t mind strained analogies.

The ISS has the combined equivalent systems of a high performance aircraft, a functional wet science lab, an office building, and a home. Not only that, the international nature of the program means that some of those systems are written in Cyrillic or Japanese and must function with their American built counterparts. I wonder if the environmental system of a Tokyo high-rise could be easily retrofitted into a similar system in NYC? Learning to operate all of these systems together reliably and non-stop for many years will necessarily take time, and as I’ve written about before, should probably be considered one of the main goals of the ISS. Twelve years is enough time for us to start building confidence, but we are just getting started.

I may still be here in 2020, celebrating my own kind of 12-year anniversary with ISS. Who really knows what their life will be like 8 or more years in the future? I certainly didn’t think I would be here flying spaceships back in 2000. ISS operations today are nothing like they were during Expedition 1 – and that’s mostly in good ways. We now have a fully assembled laboratory with more science than our full crew of 6 can take care of. Older components are wearing out and we are learning how to repair, replace, or live without them. Whatever the rest of the NASA budget is spent on, the next 12 years of ISS operations will be spent really learning what “long duration spaceflight” really means. Here’s to seeing Expedition 60 and beyond!

*By the way, Commander Sunita Williams now has the fifth most hours of spacewalking time of any person ever

Sharing the View

This weekend I ended up working the Sunday day shift (“Orbit 2”) when I had not planned to. Nobody likes getting called in on a day off – I’m sure most people immediately think of Peter from Office Space, like me. But in my case I volunteered, so it actually wasn’t anything like that clip.

Sitting in the FCR is one of the best ways to spend a day in my job. So even though today was Sunday, I made the most of it by enjoying the Earth float by while I worked. Here are some low res shots of various places in the Western hemisphere the ISS passed over today. I guess it’s not really “work” if I can play tourist?

(the baseball bat in the foreground of my pictures is the “attitude control device” that we keep handy at the ADCO console)

Great shot of Southern Italy almost directly naidr

Sunset over Eastern Europe

Much of southern Argentina and Chile looking South

Mexico, Brownsville, and South Padre Island (looking South)

East Texas Gulf Coast with Galveston Bay in the top of the right screen

Much of the Southeast United States with Florida at the top of the screen

The Nile river delta

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. But 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

Sharing the View

Yesterday was my first ISS shift at the ADCO console in a couple of weeks. I’ll be working 6 shifts through next Thursday. Here are some photos I snapped on my iPhone (following the tradition of this earlier post). Let me know if you like them! You can click the photos for full versions. I’ll see if I can improve on the resolution today.


Lake Superior, the upper peninsula, and northern Lake Michigan. South is up.


Vancouver Island, Vancouver, Seattle, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Peninsula. South is roughly up.


Wildfires in western Washington


And I thought I would share my new iPhone log screen. Neil Armstrong during Gemini 8.

On becoming an adult

We all know the feeling that we aren’t really adults – that nothing really changed when you turned 18 or since then. You may put a tie on in the morning and pay your rent and taxes, but somehow you feel like you’re just pretending. Of course, the big secret is that everyone feels this way. In our mid-twenties my girlfriend and I still talk about how we feel like we are pretending, and I gather the feeling usually lasts at least another decade. Even I was surprised to find out which of the important people I work with like to go home and play video games. There’s the old adage that “kids want to be adults and adults want to be kids.”

Despite this feeling, I believe there is an event in most people’s lives where you start to feel different – that forces you to acknowledge your adultness. I expect for some the moment of marriage or the birth of a first child is that force. For me, the moment was last fall when I realized I would be qualified to apply to NASA’s astronaut class of 2013 (or NASA Astronaut Group 21). As a certified ADCO flight controller for ISS you might think I should have had this moment. The first time I walked into the Flight Control Room with a full certification and sat down at the ADCO console, the weight of responsibility might have been that last force sending me into adulthood. For some reason that moment did not carry the expected weight, and I think that reason has to do with a connection to my younger self. As a child I did not want to be a space station flight controller, mostly because the space station didn’t exist. But for as long as I can remember I have wanted to be an astronaut.

Perhaps not every child wants to be an astronaut, but it’s fair to say that most who know what an astronaut is have held that fantasy at one point. A child has no trouble imagining the simpleness of such a dream coming true. Once the dream is decided, one simply has to go do it, right? The dream is simple to a child, but the distance to that dream is vast. I can remember as a 6th grader in 1999 being baffled by how long I had to wait until graduation and adulthood in the summer of 2005. If a 12-year-old cannot fathom 6 years, how can a 5-year-old aspiring astronaut fathom the life to conquer on the way to a dream? Yet somehow, 20 years later, I hold the credentials to throw my hat in the ring. Resume: check. Transcript: check. References: check. Fingers crossed: check. I guess I’m an adult now?

This revelation came 7 months ago now, as NASA stopped accepting applications in January. No news is good news and I have been waiting. I received a post card in May – 4 months after I sent my transcript in – that said “thank you for your application”. For how many other jobs will someone happily wait in limbo for the better part of a year? The more days without news, the longer the dream is alive. Last week I rediscovered the official schedule of the selection process, which bolstered hope. Now that it is August NASA is in step 4: “Highly Qualified applications reviewed to determine Interviewees”. So my days are numbered, I suppose.

I never expected that my mere minimum requirements would get me into the “highly qualified” pool, and they probably won’t. With thousands upon thousands of applicants, NASA has America’s best to choose from. If any year is ever to be my year, it will not be this one. But as the other old adage goes, life is a journey, not a destination. And for me that little “thank you” postcard is my step along journey that confirms I am no longer pretending. I have arrived at adulthood, and I better deal with it.

Sharing the View

Just wanted to share five photos I took with my phone from the ADCO console in the ISS Flight Control Room this past weekend. I was on shift both Saturday and Sunday for the day shift. Weekend day shifts are understandably slow, even when the astronauts are awake, because they get the weekend off just like us. An exception is this coming weekend, which will be very busy with Soyuz undocking operations! Anyway, when I get tired of staring at computer screens, I check out what’s passing by on the Earth views at the front of the room. Here’s some of what I saw this past weekend.


Greece and Turkey on a clear day over the Mediterannean (up is Southeast I think)


Italy on a clear day over the Mediterranean. Seen at the same time as the Greece shot above (up is East)


Tropical Storm Debby about an hour before it was declared a TS on Saturday at around 1:30 PM CDT, or so (up is Northeast)


I think this is the outskirts of Newfoundland, but the sunglint makes it hard to identify. Taken Saturday. Colors were better IRL


TS Debby parked over Florida on Sunday, June 24 (up is East)