Archive for the ‘Mission Control’ Category
Part I – Exploration
Spaceflight, as a many-hundred billion-dollar sector, is a broad and complex industry. Even if we focus in on “exploration” – which is the primary focus of this blog – so that we can ignore military and commercial uses of Earth orbit, we are still left with a global list of activities, studies, missions, and companies. This means there is a lot of stuff going on. 2016 was a busy year with many exciting missions from several different countries. This diversity is great, but makes it hard to boil down the events of last year into a coherent story. Even within NASA, we have the ISS program, with its own highs and lows, and the totally separate and just as successful planetary science portfolio of missions. Those missions keep on going, regardless of whether the most recent cargo delivery has made it to our astronauts in orbit, for instance. Meanwhile, in China, the CNSA is continuing to grow as a nascent space power with new rockets, new launch sites, and a brand new space station. Then there’s Russia, Japan, Europe, India, and more. If any theme can be found at all in the events of last year it is that space exploration continues to be a diverse and global endeavor. Putting any nationalism aside, this should give us hope that despite the ups and downs of the economies or space budgets in any given country, that exciting times lie ahead.
It’s hard to start a summary of 2016 in spaceflight without acknowledging that the United States had a major election, with a new President to be inaugurated this week. Any presidential transition leads to uncertainty in the future of government programs, including NASA. Often election years leave the federal government in a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution means that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the year. This leaves NASA and other agencies working under last year’s budget levels, with no increase for inflation or otherwise. The election was a big story for the country in a lot of ways, but NASA and its programs are most likely to feel the effects in 2017, as it tries to continue with business as usual as it waits for new priorities and a new budget.
While 2017 may bring about change (or not), 2016 was another good year for NASA’s flagship space exploration missions. NASA had no major failures last year, just the usual hiccups and challenges (space is hard, after all) and even launched a new planetary exploration mission: OSIRIS-REX, which is on its way to visit an asteroid in 2023. In fact, last year showed that NASA is still a clear leader in planetary exploration, with probes in action all over the solar system. The NASA fleet at Mars remains strong, with two rovers on the surface and two probes in orbit. New Horizons received a mission extension and is on its way to a Kuiper Belt Object rendezvous in a few years. Meanwhile, the probe Juno made orbit at Jupiter and started scientific observations. Unfortunately, Juno has some sticky propellant valves and missed some of its early science orbits when it entered “safe mode.” Fortunately, the probe was brought out of safe mode and completed a Jupiter flyby in December. Most of the probe’s 20-month mission is ahead. Hopefully Juno’s worst days are in the past! Out at Saturn, NASA is still operating the Cassini probe, which has been in orbit since 2004. Sadly, 2017 will see the end of Cassini, as it destroys itself in dramatic fashion, with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.
Two other planetary missions of note from other countries had some action last year. ExoMars (a joint mission between ESA and Russia) launched and made it to Mars. However, its companion lander, Schiaparelli, was unable to make it safely to the Martian surface and crash-landed. Thus, NASA remains the sole space agency to have safely brought a spacecraft to the surface of Mars… having done so seven times. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union is the only country to have ever landed a probe on Venus! A feat which has not been repeated since 1982, and does not appear to be repeated any time soon, as most space agencies focus on asteroids and the outer solar system in their planetary science missions. Venus is not forgotten though, as Japan was able to begin doing science with their Akatsuki orbiter at Venus last year.
Following the theme of “space is hard,” Japan had a pretty devastating failure when their new X-ray telescope Astro-H, or Hitomi, went out of contact after reaching orbit. Fortunately, Japan already has a strong space program and seems mature and professional enough to learn from their mistakes – they released a failure report very quickly after the accident. They currently have an asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2, en route to its target in 2018, which we should all be very excited about. NASA has a strong relationship with JAXA, and will be curating the Hayabusa samples here at the Johnson Space Center when they return.
In human space exploration, the story continues to be the International Space Station. The ISS had an exciting year, partly because NASA and ESA continue to send charismatic astronauts who manage to make the mission feel very personal to all of us following back on Earth. It was a great year for following astronauts on Twitter, including Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake, Scott Kelly, Shane Kimbrough, Thomas Pesquet, and Peggy Whitson. It’s hard to see how this trend will do anything but accelerate, as it’s a cheap and easy way for NASA to connect with the American public and share its mission. Scott Kelly of course returned from space early in the year and retired from NASA on a high note. Since the “year in space” was such a success, both operationally and as a public affairs bonanza, it seems likely NASA will want to try more longer duration expeditions in the future.
On the more nuts and bolts side of things for the ISS, all major mission events went well last year, with both the arrival and installation of the new IDA2 docking adapter and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an exciting demonstration of where human habitability in Earth orbit may be able to go in the future with inflatable structures. It is exciting to think that the technology may spinoff a private-public partnership with either or both of the companies Bigelow and Axiom to expand the ISS with new large inflatable modules in the future.
The ISS did face some minor setbacks of its own, although not quite as dramatic as in more recent years. Two rocket failures impacted ISS logistics: the SpaceX explosion on the pad in Florida in September and the loss of a Russian Progress resupply mission in December. The good news for NASA was that the SpaceX failure was not an ISS mission, but it meant a delay to the next planned resupply flight of a Dragon capsule, now scheduled for February. ISS is well stocked on supplies thanks to a Japanese resupply mission that also flew in December and the Orbital ATK Antares rocket returning to flight status in October. Even with both Japanese and American rockets able to keep ISS supplied, having the Russian Soyuz rocket family grounded must always make mission managers uneasy. After all, it is the same rocket family that failed in December that also delivers crews to the station. We are not in uncharted territory, as expedition schedules were in limbo after similar accidents in 2011 and 2015. But the ups and downs of the launch vehicle sector are a continual challenge not only for NASA’s ISS program but for dreamers who envision hundreds of people at a time into deep space for colonization. ISS truly is the foothold where we must learn first, and is a great proving ground for those dreamers.
The ISS accounts for over 2,000 person days of space experience a year. The day-in and day-out slog of operating an aging orbital laboratory and learning to live there is slowly but surely preparing us for what comes next. This experience is shared by a partnership of 15 nations (USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, and 11 countries from ESA). However, the rising nation of China finds itself on the outside. Just like in many other sectors, China is finding its own way in space. Last year was a good one for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). Not only did they launch a brand new space station, Tiangong-2 and send a crew of 2 on a 30-day mission to the outpost, they also debuted a brand new Long March 5 heavy lift launcher while matching the US in successful launches on the year – twenty-two. A new medium-lift rocket, Long March 7, also debuted from a new coastal spaceport on Hainan Island, which should give CNSA more flexibility. CNSA’s recent white paper publically published outlining their five-year plan shows ambition but also should be a douse of cold water on people expecting a space race between China and the USA. China certainly has a lot to be proud of as only the third independent nation to place humans in space. But they have a long way to go to put themselves on par with the modern space programs in America and elsewhere. I look forward to their planned lunar sample return mission in 2017, which will give them a lot of “street cred” if they pull it off!
Obviously these are not the only happenings in space exploration and related science areas. I could go on about the exciting developments in exoplanet astronomy, a field that may provide worlds to explore decades or centuries from now, for example. We continue to live in a golden age of space exploration that started with the Galileo probe to Jupiter in the early 90s. For me, 2016 was a testament to the true diversity of the state of space exploration and should serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision. There are many facets to how we explore. It’s not just about shiny new rockets and capsules and astronauts, but its also not just about gathering science through a space telescope or a distant robotic probe. All these pieces fit together to move forward the state of our knowledge about the universe together. One of my favorite examples of this from last year was astronaut Kate Rubins’ work on gene sequencing while aboard the ISS. Talk about two sectors that do not traditionally intersect, at least not in the minds of the general public. Diversity – both in the space agencies doing the exploration as well as the type of exploration – will keep the dream alive. I can’t wait to see what we do on ISS this year but I also look forward to news out of China and India as they learn what it takes to fly in space.
The biggest problem with keeping up this steady cadence of exploration is how all these space agencies will pay for it, as the world faces challenging fiscal and security issues. Space is exciting – and important – but it is far from the first priority when it comes to setting budgets in most parts of the world. Fortunately, we have disruptive new players in the launch sector that can help us keep costs down. More on that in my next post.
Down to Earth
Jack Garman, who worked a support console for Apollo guidance and navigation, passed away on September 20th, at 72 years old. Garman is best known as being instrumental in the calls to proceed with landing on Apollo 11 when some guidance computer program alarms showed up at just 3,000 feet above the surface. Here’s the raw audio from that part of the landing which is always worth listening to again. Great example of flight control in action.
Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk had a special episode hosted by astronaut Mike Massimino with guest interviewees, flight directors Royce Renfrew and Emily Nelson. Check it out here!
Musician and singer Grace Potter collaborated with NASA on a music video for her song Look What We’ve Become. It was filmed completely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center! Check it out below.
One of the biggest national stories of the last week was Hurricane Matthew, which came close to dolling out a devastating blow to the East coast of Florida. Fortunately, the most dangerous winds stayed offshore as it passed the Kennedy Space Center, resulting in some damage but nothing too serious.
In the battle of the New Space giants, there were two big stories in recent weeks. First, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had his much anticipated presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico. the speech presented a high level framework of his plans to visit Mars. Most of the details were focused on the rocket design and less on how humans would survive and thrive on Mars. Below is the full length video, but Ars Technica had a good analysis if you don’t want to watch all of it. Another good take on it from Phil Plait here.
If you are interested in just the 4-minute animation from SpaceX showing their imagined Mars mission architecture, jump to the second video below.
The other big story was Blue Origin’s successful in-flight abort test of their New Shepard rocket (personally, I am not sure if they have a separate name for the capsule or if New Shepard refers to the whole system. It was a pretty exciting launch and test. Jump to 51 minutes in the webcast replay below to watch!
Lots of good news regarding the ISS flight manifest. The next Cygnus cargo freighter, launching from Virginia for the first time in 2 years on Orbital ATK’s redesigned Antares rocket, should fly next Thursday, the 13th.
The following week, the next crew should launch on their repaired Soyuz craft. That launch is scheduled for Wednesday, the 19th.
There were two rocket launches since my last post. First, an Indian GSLV rocket launched a slew of satellites into orbit, including some from Algeria, USA, Canada, and India. Second, an ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched two communications satellites to a geosynchronous orbit on the 5th.
Around the Solar System
Check out this “video” (really an animated gif made from stills) of the Curiosity rover drilling on Mars! The rover has just officially entered its next two-year mission extension.
— Jason Major (@JPMajor) September 19, 2016
NASA announced new findings from the Hubble Space Telescope that reinforce the conclusion that not only does Europa have a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but that the water regularly exits the moon in powerful plumes (which could be theoretically sampled by a visiting probe).
In even more exciting planetary science news, NASA announced new analysis of data from the MESSENGER spacecraft (which finished its Mercury orbital mission last year). By analyzing imagery from the last part of MESSENGER’s mission, when it was at a lower altitude, scientists have concluded that the surface shows signs of recent contraction, meaning that Mercury is tectonically active.
ESA’s Rosetta mission ended on September 30th with a controlled descent into comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko.
Obviously the huge news this week is the successful launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the return to flight of the Dragon capsule and a successful landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). See the “In Orbit” section for more details!
Down to Earth
Blue Origin achieved an impressive feat last week, flying the same suborbital New Shepard rocket for the third time since November.
Following a rocket anomaly in the launch of a Cygnus resupply craft last month the ULA Atlas V rocket is grounded.
Accomplished NASA astronaut, and current NASA science chief, John Grunsfeld, will be retiring.
Roscosmos is selling the perennially financially troubled venture Sea Launch.
There have been 4 orbital launches since my last blog update on March 27. Here they are in chronological order: China launched a single Beidou navigation satellite on March 29, Russia launched a Progress resupply craft from Baikonaur on March 31, China launched a microgravity science payload on April 6, and of course SpaceX launched a Dragon resupply capsule on April 8.
The flawless Falcon 9 ascent and capsule deploy was overshadowed by SpaceX achieving the impressive feat of recovering the rocket’s first stage on the ASDS, out in the Atlantic Ocean. This video says it all.
This delivery of cargo aboard Dragon will wrap up a very busy time period aboard ISS. Starting with the Soyuz undocking at the beginning of March, which brought Scott Kelly home and started Expedition 47, there have been 6 different visiting vehicle events, with Dragon being the third cargo resupply in 2 weeks.
One of the payloads aboard Dragon that everyone is excited about is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Here is a simple infographic about BEAM (via Parabolic Arc).
Around the Solar System
Meanwhile, on Mars, NASA’s rovers are quietly doing science. Check out this panorama from Curiosity. On the other side of the planet, Opportunity has been exploring Marathon Valley and braving slopes above 30 degrees tilt in the name of science.
Down to Earth
Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.
Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.
NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.
Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.
Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.
China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.
Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:
— Mark Kelly (@ShuttleCDRKelly) February 23, 2016
You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).
SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.
Down To Earth
Two space shuttle astronauts, Brian Duffy and Scott Parazynski, were recently inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.
Apollo astronaut and moonwalker, Edgar Mitchell, died at the age of 85.
Former President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) visited Johnson Space Center and talked to the ISS astronauts from the Mission Control Center.
All of the segments of the primary mirror to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been assembled!
The Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected “gravitational waves”, which is what it was designed to do. This is a basically a new way to see the universe – like the first time an X-Ray observatory was put into space and returned data. Not only that, it validates parts of Einstein’s theories. Here are some brief articles from Phil Plait and Sean Carroll, who explain it well.
Check out this amazing zero-gravity music video by Ok Go, which doesn’t use any digital effects. Wow!
Curators at the Smithsonian recently did a 3D scan of the inside of the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, and found previously unknown handwritten notes on the walls.
Astronaut Kevin Ford has retired from NASA.
The new SpaceX “transporter erector” at pad 39A in Florida is pretty cool looking.
A number of rocket launches since my last post in late January: a Chinese rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (Beidou), a ULA Atlas V launched a GPS satellite, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (GLONASS), a ULA Delta IV launched a secret USA reconnaissance office payload, and lastly North Korea launched something.
This brings the worldwide launch cadence for the year up to 10 so far, or almost 2 per week. We are still waiting for the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, which should be before March.
Veteran cosmonauts Sergey Volkov and Yuri Malenchenko conducted a successful spacewalk on the Russian Segment of the ISS.
Around the Solar System
The European Space Agency has announced that they are no longer attempting to send commands to the lost Philae lander, which has not transmitted from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in months.
China has released some new photos of the moon from it’s Yutu rover mission (the rover died some time ago).
The last year was full of spacey goodness. Some things were expected – even long anticipated – like space probes Dawn and New Horizons arriving at their targets. Other things were a complete surprise, like the loss of SpaceX’s seventh commercial flight to ISS and the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. All-in-all, there was a lot to follow and talk about. Thus, I am putting together one or more “year in review” blog posts to give my perspective on what has happened and what’s to come. In the meantime, you can enjoy other people’s thoughts of 2015 in spaceflight through the links I have gathered below. Happy new year!
As usual, I love to lean on the “year in spaceflight” pages on Wikipedia. The folks that put these together do a thorough job. If we look at the 2015 in spaceflight page, we see that the human race is maintaining our high flight rate, with 82 successful orbital launches out of 87 attempts. These numbers have been steadily growing for years. Here is the last decade’s successful launches numbers, starting with 2005: 52, 62, 63, 66, 73, 70, 78, 72, 77, 88, 82. As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Links post, Russia had the most launches with 26 and their Soyuz rocket is by far the most dominant, at 17 launches. However, their two failures this year make it hard to call Soyuz both the most dominant and most reliable. China launches 19 of their Long March family of rockets with no failures.
Using the “list of spaceflight records” we can see some changes in the list for total time in space. Most notably, Gennady Padalka spent 167 days on ISS during Expedition 43/44, his 5th spaceflight, to put him at the top spot for most spaceflown human ever. He has spent 879 days of his life in space. Also notable is Anton Shkaplerov, who returned to Earth during Expedition 43 and is at the 32 spot, Oleg Kononenko, who returned during Expedition 45 and holds the 13 spot with 533 days, and Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov who are currently in space and hold the 7 and 31 spots respectively.
The other notable record that was broken this year is “longest single flight by a woman” (which is on the list of spaceflight records page), broken this year by Samantha Cristoforetti, partly because her crew got stuck on ISS a little bit longer after the loss of a Progress resupply flight in May.
AmericaSpace, but on planetary science.
AmericaSpace’s compilation video of launches:
And here’s a series of four year in review posts from NASA Spaceflight:
Government Agency PR
NASA’s summary of 2015. With video below.
NASA’s top 15 images of Earth from ISS (if you are a real photography or geography nut, you will want to click “read more” on each picture).
Top Space Stories of 2015
Down to Earth
NASA has selected five new flight directors for manned spaceflight programs.
Last week in Houston a new opera titled ‘O Columbia’ premiered for just two nights at the Houston Grand Opera. The production incorporated the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in the second act. I didn’t get to see the show, but according to The Houston Chronicle a preview at the Johnson Space Center received a standing ovation.
Don’t forget to go out Sunday evening, September 27th, and see the lunar eclipse!
Two more orbital rocket launches last week. The first was a Rokot launch vehicle from Russia with several military communications satellites. China seems to be on a roll this month and launched another new rocket, the Long March 11, with several cubesats.
On Monday, September 28th, the Japanese HTV5 cargo vehicle will leave the ISS. You can follow along on NASA TV.
Since it’s a bit of a slow week for spaceflight news, here are some cool pictures from ISS as filler!
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) September 26, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) September 23, 2015
HTV, beautiful ocean and Oahu) I went to Hawaii three times, but those were business trip, so I was not able to swim. pic.twitter.com/YOGgHtgXmw
— 油井 亀美也 Kimiya.Yui (@Astro_Kimiya) September 22, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) September 22, 2015
— 油井 亀美也 Kimiya.Yui (@Astro_Kimiya) September 21, 2015
Around the Solar System
NASA’s Opportunity rover is preparing for the Martian winter by positioning itself on a North-facing slope in Marathon Valley.
Check out this actual imagery loop of the planet Beta Pictoris b as it moves through its orbit 63 light-years away.
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.
Almost 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, triumphantly ending America’s space race with the USSR, it is hard to find a fresh perspective on that slice of history. So much has been written about the early space program that it can be hard even to get through all of the old stuff. I have read memoirs from Collins, Cernan, Slayton, Shepard, Kranz, Kraft, Worden, and Scott, but have actually still never read The Right Stuff or A Man on the Moon (I know, I know). Despite the mountain of material out there, new books continue to be written. Not only are there new histories being written, like Dr. John Logsdon’s After Apollo?, but there are new astronaut memoirs: John Young’s Forever Young just came out a couple of years ago. But with all due respect to Captain Young, I have read a lot of test-pilot-astronaut memoirs.
The thing is, there are thousands of stories to tell from the Apollo program. It was a massive project that cost billions upon billions of dollars, which means that thousands upon thousands of people had their hands on the spaceships, on the control centers, on the Deep Space Network communications dishes. Everyone loves hearing from the astronauts, but what about all those other people who were a part of history? Fortunately for us space fans, some of those people have written those stories down to share with us. They are out there if you search for them!
One of those stories is Below Tranquility Base by Richard Stachurski. I wouldn’t expect you to recognize his name, because he is one of those thousands of small but important players in the epic story that is the Apollo program. Stachurski served as a flight controller starting in 1965. He started in the backroom and was promoted to the “Network” position for Apollo. Network was the call sign back then for the person in charge of the ground network comm link to the spacecraft, which is now called GC (Ground Control). Stachurski is a geek through and through. He is so excited to talk about his experiences in mission control during Apollo 11 that he spends very little time on his personal history and background. The book starts out “Did you ever have a job that you would pay to do? I did.” and the book thoroughly convinced me he meant it. Stachurski looks back on his time with NASA with almost unbelieving reverence to have been a part of something so amazing.
The details of Stachurski’s work as a Network flight controller are interesting in their own right, and Stachurski is happy to explain all of it. In fact, the book is so heavy on technical details that it may be off-putting to some more casual readers who aren’t already familiar with the details of an Apollo mission timeline. In fact, most of the book is a description of the Apollo 11 mission from the Network consoles perspective, detailing things that were broken and fixed, technical conversations on “the loops”, and Stachurski’s own emotions throughout the whole mission. So what exactly was “Network” responsible for?
While the movies and histories focus on the astronauts, their spacecraft, and the people in the Flight Control Room (FCR) with the Flight Director, there were hundreds of people working around the world trying to hold on to a communications link with the spacecraft so that the Flight Director could do his job. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish knows a little about that. Today our link to the ISS is a bit simpler, since we have the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) in geostationary orbit. These still require ground antennae to get data back to mission control, but there are fewer stations, not to mention we have 50 years of experience coordinating that kind of worldwide network. In the 1960s, the entire concept was brand new, they had no geostationary comm satellites, and the missions were flying all the way to the moon, where the geo sats wouldn’t have helped anyway.
Stachurski paints a vivid picture of how this communications network worked (or didn’t). In some ways, there was more drama in the struggle to keep comm with the spacecraft than in what was actually going inside the Lunar Module during powered descent to the moon. Before I read Below Tranquility Base, I never would have guessed how close to the hairy edge of holding on to that link NASA was at several points during Apollo 11. As a flight controller myself, I can relate to Stachurski’s feeling of not being important or noticed until his system has a problem, and then all eyes are on him until the problem can be fixed. The speed with which they coordinated ground site swaps is impressive. Stachurski and his team from Apollo 11 truly were “steely-eyed missilemen” despite the humility in the face of history that he alludes to throughout his tale.
It is in fact this humility that makes Below Tranquility Base such an interesting read, and will probably help most readers get through the technical parts of the book. Stachurski’s academic background in fact is not technical at all. He studied history in college while in the ROTC program to help pay his tuition. After school, he went into active duty, which got him assigned to a bomber wing in Indiana. In those days, a bomber wing in the heartland meant that you looked after airplanes that stood at the ready 24/7 to take off with nuclear warheads to drop on our enemies. After Indiana, Stachurski spent some time babysitting nuclear missiles in the Dakotas. He was one of the guys with his finger on a launch key the Cuban Missile Crisis. The frank look we get from Stachurski into what these Cold War jobs were like is not something you would expect from a space program memoir, but is fascinating nonetheless.
This all leads to Stachurski’s assignment by the Air Force to support mission control in Houston for the Apollo program, where he feels like just a “liberal arts puke” (his words) out of his element. His journey from an overwhelmed nobody in the backroom to a front room flight controller for both the Apollo 11 launch shift and the lunar ascent shift is inspirational. In addition, his own opinion of himself that he was not that important of a player during Apollo 11 affords an unfiltered perspective on life in mission control. For instance, Stachurski gives us his frank opinion that he actually didn’t care for Gene Kranz much, feeling that his leadership style was a little bit overbearing and relied too much on micromanagement. He also tells us about the dirty magazines that they had hidden away on console for boring night shifts…
Below Tranquility Base and books like it are an important but rare part of the story of the early space age. Without them, we miss out on the small dramas that were happening all the time. Small triumphs, like having a solution when a whole network switch catches on fire in Spain during a crucial Apollo 11 mission phase, put in perspective how many people were required and how many things had to go right for the Apollo program to be successful. The book also helps to chronicle the early development of the culture of flight control in Houston that survives today. I even learned the definition of an acronym* I use regularly at work from Stachurski! This is a book that should make it onto the reading list of all avid space history fans and current flight controllers at NASA, but will probably be enjoyed by most casual fans of NASA or US history. You can get it for free on Kindle Unlimited here (it is $11.31 in paperback).
*Apparently a “pad” in a procedure is actually a PAD, standing for Pre-Advisory Data.
Some other good books that give the ground level perspective on the early space program include:
Full Circle by David L. Cisco, lunar module electrical technician.
Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Apollo flight controller.
The Unbroken Chain by Guenter Wendt, Apollo launch pad closeout team leader.
Obviously the big news this week was that New Horizons had its encounter with Pluto this past week. My space news feed was almost entirely Pluto news starting on July 12th, two days before the encounter. Rather than provide you a dozen links, some of which might be out of date, I would just suggest going over to The Planetary Society blog for up to date coverage of the latest pictures coming in from the outer solar system. Ok, on with some non-Pluto news…
Down to Earth
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint manned spaceflight between the US and Russia (the USSR at the time). The mission is today remembered as an early precursor to the partnership that led to the ISS. NASA TV did a nice piece marking the anniversary, with interviews with the two commanders: Leonov and Stafford. Check it out! (jump to 9:27 for some prophetic words from President Gerald Ford about the future of cooperation in space)
There was a bit of excitement up on the ISS this week. Early on Thursday morning, Houston time, flight controllers in charge of monitoring the trajectory of the ISS were notified of a debris threat without enough notice to coordinate a debris avoidance maneuver rocket firing. Thus, the crew of Expedition 44 had to execute what is called a “shelter in place”. Essentially, they hunker down in their return capsule until the all clear call. No actual debris strike was noted at the “time of closest approach”.
In less scary ISS news, several sets of cubesats were launched from one of the ISS robotic arms. The spring-loaded launcher was built by the company Nanoracks and the cubesats came from various sources, including one test flight for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.
Nanoracks recently announced they will also work with Blue Origin to help them fly suborbital research, building on their experience on the ISS.
The next crewed launch to the ISS from Baikonaur will be on Wednesday, July 22nd. You can see NASA TV’s launch and docking coverage schedule here.
There were two successful orbital launches in the last week, both on Wednesday, the 15th: an Atlas V rocket launched a GPS satellite from Florida and an Ariane 5 rocket launched two satellites (one communication and one earth-observing) from Korou.
Around the Solar System
Of course, I can’t resist discussing Pluto at least a little bit… On Tuesday, July 18th, the NASA New Horizons probe made its closest approach to Pluto and survived, phoning home later that evening. The entire dataset from the flyby will take months to downlink back to mission control over the Deep Space Network, but the initial photographs of both Pluto and its largest moon Charon are enough to surprise and excite scientists with some odd unexpected features on both bodies. Some are calling this a “last first look” now that all the large bodies of the solar system have been photographed up close by spacecraft.
— NASA (@NASA) July 15, 2015