5000 Days on ISS: From Expedition 1 to Who Knows When

International Space Station on December 9, 2000

The first resident crew of astronauts entered the International Space Station on November 2, 2000. As of Saturday, July 12th, 2014, astronauts will have lived on-board the station in low Earth orbit for 5000 days.  The first crew on-board the ISS was comprised of one NASA astronaut, Commander Bill Shepherd, and two Cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko.

I was a late addition to the Expedition 1 training team, assigned as the lead Environmental Control and Life Support Systems Instructor roughly six months before the crew was scheduled to liftoff aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome.  My predecessor on that assignment had burned out from the grueling effort to get to that point and left the job to work elsewhere.  At that point, our group management was in a bind.  Over the previous six months, everyone with experience and in-depth knowledge of ISS life support systems had left.  They turned to me, with only a year on the job and less than 2 years out of college, and asked me to do my best and finish up the crew’s training.

The crew knew way more than I did at that moment and could have likely trained themselves.  Expedition 1 had started their training four and a half years prior to that point.  Bill Shepherd knew as much about every nut, bolt, and circuit board on that vehicle as any one person could.  While the crew was first starting their ISS training, I was in the office of a cross-cultural psychology professor who was telling me that if I ever actually applied myself, I could do great things.

I was given the task of putting together an overview of the ISS life support systems and some simulation cases to refresh the crew’s knowledge of those systems and ensure they knew everything they needed to know prior to launch.  The Station Training Lead and senior integration instructor on the training team were nervous about me.  If the crew felt like I was wasting their time, at best, they wouldn’t hesitate to get up and leave the session and go do something they felt was more worthwhile.  At worst, they would chew me up and spit me out like the insignificant little turd that I was.  I had been told to make sure I had my act together.

I had learned as much as I could about those life support systems.  I had read software requirement specifications documents, architecture description documents, interface control documents, subsystem summary sheets, training manuals, schematics, I had practiced in the simulators, and had even walked through the actual ISS Lab module at KSC when the module was being tested.  I had soaked in as much as I could.

From left to right: Yuri Gidzenko, Bill Shepherd, and Sergei Krikalev

The moment of truth came.  The Station Training Lead held her breath.  I laid out a blank table and asked them to tell me every sensor on-board that could measure the air pressure on-board the ISS.  They quickly rattled off the cabin pressure sensors and the handheld vacuum manometer the Russians used.  I pressed for another one, looking for them to identify a portable pressure sensor that could be attached to a hatch to measure the air pressure on the other side.  Sergei objected to this. He started arguing with me about the function of the device.  That’s when Bill Shepherd turned to Sergei, told him to stop being a lawyer, and everyone smiled and laughed.  The pressure went out of the room and the training leads realized that I would survive the day.

We spent the next few hours reviewing every last piece of life support equipment on-board and then went through a few simulation scenarios to make sure the crew was ready to respond to a few potential malfunctions.  Later I would realize that our focus for their training was completely wrong.  We were spending way too much time focused on software which the mission control team in Houston would take primary responsibility to recover.  Our instructor team would spend the better part of the next two years completely redeveloping that training flow.

A friend asked me if I thought we would reach 10,000 days of crews living on-board ISS.  To do that, we will need to keep a crew on-board ISS until Monday, March 20, 2028.  The odds of that happening are probably pretty slim.  NASA has agreed to extend the life of the ISS to 2024, but we have yet to reach agreement with our International Partners on that.  Some at the agency have started looking at extending the life of the vehicle for four additional years to 2028, but the reality is the agency doesn’t have the funding to fly the ISS and do some other human exploration program to another destination in the Solar system.  If we want to go to an asteroid, or back to the Moon, or to Mars or the moons of Mars, we’re going to be required to stop flying ISS and pour all of our money into that program.  ISS will go away before then, unless our government decides to markedly increase the amount we invest in space exploration.

For the moment, we’ll continue to fly ISS and bore holes in the sky.  ISS continues to evolve in look and capability and the next few years are crucial to not only its success but the success of our future programs as we try to ensure the viability of US commercial cargo vehicles and return the country’s ability to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit via our Commercial Crew Program.  In addition, ISS will continue to be used as a test bed for new technologies, including advanced life support equipment,  advanced propulsion, plant-life experiments, animal experiments, and an ever-growing host of human experiments that will prepare us to someday go to those destinations that we can currently only set foot on in the realms of our imaginations.

All images courtesy of NASA.

Gravity Kills: Comments on the Movie from an ISS perspective

***WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS***

I finally broke down and saw Gravity yesterday.  I was a bit reluctant to see it, because having worked in Mission Operations for 14 years, I knew that any technical inaccuracy would jump out at me.  It’s hard to lose yourself in the moment when in  the back of your mind you know that the color of the walls is off and the sign in the background is pointing the wrong direction.  But, I wanted to give it a chance.

Gravity is highly entertaining and it is a beautiful piece of motion picture art.  Director Alfonso Cuaron will likely do more to promote the existence of the International Space Station (ISS) and the Chinese Space Station (CSS) than anything that I will do in the course of my career.  Sandra Bullock was great in the lead role and I’ll happily add this to the list of movies I want my girls to see when they get a little older.  I enjoyed George Clooney’s character and appreciated the way he approached the character.

Was the film an accurate reflection of the real world?  It was hit and miss.  The inciting incident of the movie was inspired by a real-life event that has caused ISS many headaches over the years.  Some other minor details were great – the auroras, the inverted image in the water bubble, an accurate Station Support Computer (SSC) and Portable Computer System (PCS) in the ISS – but many other things were not.  I’d like to give a little insight into how some things really work, not in an attempt to tear down the movie, but more to educate on how things really are.   The frustration I have is that many of these could have been written into the movie without changing the narrative or changing the art and had some of these things been corrected, I would have spent less time focusing on the background details and more time immersed in the story.

I’m not going to address the biggest issue – Hubble, ISS, and CSS being in the same orbit and within line of sight – that’s already been done, nor am I going to harp on the worst moment of bad science when Clooney’s character floated away.  I’m also not going to address the shuttle, the spacesuits (EMUs), the Soyuz or the CSS, I have little to no expertise in each of those.  My friend and co-worker Michael Interbartolo III is quoted in this CNN article addressing some of the shuttle issues. Instead, I’m going to focus on ISS and some of the realities of ISS operations.

Let’s start with the Soyuz. (And Mr. Clooney, it’s pronounced ‘soy-yous’ not ‘soy-yez’. You needed to channel your inner Philadelphian and repeatedly practice saying ‘yous-guys’ to help get it right.) The Soyuz is the lifeboat for the ISS; however, there is no extra. We always have enough Soyuz craft available to bring the ISS crew home and that’s it.  The movie gave the impression that the ISS had a 3-person crew and an extra Soyuz capsule to come home in.  The ISS should have had 6-crew and 2 Soyuz, each capable of returning 3 people to Earth.  Rather than having an extra lifeboat, they could’ve easily written into the script that half the ISS crew was killed, after all the ISS had already taken a bit of a beating.  I recognize you needed the Soyuz for the narrative, it’s just too bad they didn’t do it in the confines of reality.

Ms. Bullock enters the ISS via the Russian Airlock when in reality she would have been more familiar with the US Airlock.  The Russian Segment set pieces looked great and made me wonder if the Russian Space Agency cooperated with them more than NASA did, which would explain their prominence in the film.  When she doffs the spacesuit, she should have been wearing a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment although that would admittedly have been less..uh… visually appealing.

Not as attractive as a tank top and short shorts.

This is admittedly nit-picking, but these are the elements that really make a story convincing and immersive.

Now, the other big thing from an ISS perspective is the sudden raging inferno that forces our hero into the Soyuz.  My job for five years was to come up with fire cases like this in order to test the capabilities of astronauts and flight controllers.  Week after week, I and my fellow instructors would come up with devious, loosely plausible emergency scenarios that our tortured students would need to correctly address.  It was the most fun part of the job.

It was also incredibly challenging.  The engineers who designed and built ISS did a great job mitigating the risk of any potential fires.  ISS is built with materials that are designed to either not catch fire or not propagate a fire.  ISS oxygen levels are carefully regulated to ensure that the oxygen concentration stays below a certain level to reduce the risk of a fire.  The ISS is also extremely compartmentalized so that if a fire does start in one area, it won’t spread beyond that area.  In addition, when a fire does start the ISS immediately shuts down all fans and closes ventilation valves wherever possible.  This does two things. First, it stops feeding oxygen to the fire. Second, it stops toxic byproducts of the fire from spreading to other modules.  All of this means that a huge fire a la the one in Gravity was highly unlikely if not impossible.

Now, there are two things that are known fire hazards that could have made the situation more realistic.  There is an oxygen system, containing 100% oxygen, in the US airlock.  Astronauts receive special training on handling this system, because an incorrect action here could result in a catastrophic explosion.  If Bullock’s character had plugged something into this system, like say to recover from a mild case of decompression sickness from her spacewalk, then you could have done it easily.  Either that or the ISS does have a solid fuel oxygen generator, the same system that caused a dangerous fire on Mir.

So the fire as it occurred was unlikely, but there are ways to retcon it. The little detail I wish they had gotten right though was the fire extinguisher.  If memory serves, Ms. Bullock grabbed a fire extinguisher in either Node 1 or Node 2.  She should have grabbed a US fire extinguisher, instead she had what looked like a Russian fire extinguisher.

PFE

The orange ovoid is a US fire extinguisher.

The US fire extinguisher contains compressed carbon dioxide and it is propulsive, which means the little jolt she receives when firing it and thereby almost knocks herself out would have been correct if she had been using the right extinguisher.  The main difference between the US and Russian extinguishers – the Russian extinguisher discharges a sort-of soapy water instead of a gas.  Again this isn’t a big deal, but it is a detail they could have easily gotten right and not changed anything to do with the story.

The last  thing I have to address is the training aspect.  A shuttle payload specialist would almost never have been trained on the Soyuz. The only shuttle crew that I’m aware of receiving Soyuz training was the crew for STS-135.  Post Columbia accident, a protocol was enacted where the next Shuttle to launch would serve as the rescue vehicle for any shuttle that was damaged on launch or in-orbit.  With 135, that wasn’t possible.  So the plan was if the shuttle had been damaged, the crew would stay on ISS as a safe haven and mix in with the ISS crews in returning to Earth.  It would have taken us almost two years to fully return that 4-person shuttle crew to Earth if that had happened.  Because that was the rescue plan, they received some special Soyuz training.  However, they would have sat in the Soyuz right seat.  That crewmembers doesn’t have much more of a role than a living bag of sand.  They would have received no Soyuz pilot training.  No US astronaut has ever been trained to be a Soyuz pilot.  It’ll never happen.  I would have easily believed her if she had said she crashed the shuttle simulator, which I have had the pleasure of doing myself.

In the end, Gravity was highly entertaining and a gripping movie experience that looked absolutely fantastic, but it was much more space fantasy than it was hard science fiction. There were more issues than what I’ve detailed here, but I think I’ve beaten this horse enough.  I’ll happily share this movie with my girls when they’re the right age and I’ll enjoy it for what it is, but if you’ve read to this point you’ll have a little better understanding for how some of these things should have worked.

FET 230 Hours Furlough Report

Now to grow my hair out so I look like the guy from Sleepy Hollow.

Now to grow my hair out so I look like the guy from Sleepy Hollow.

 

Duration of Furlough: 9 days and counting

Work not done: I forgot to mention that yesterday I would have had my branch staff meeting.  What’s so important about that?  Well, once a month I get everyone in my branch together and I give out Tastykakes!  I try to recognize any notable accomplishments from the previous month.  Thus I have been deprived of the most fun thing I get to do every month – throwing food at people.

The other big thing that we’re falling behind on is training people to be flight controllers.  Five people in our branch are currently working toward certification – two in our ISE flight control group, two in our PLUTO flight control group, and 1 Daily Ops Instructor.  These five people are needed to either fill spots for people who have left or to help offload other team members.  All five will be assigned to missions as soon as they achieve certification.  The sooner this training is completed, the better off we are as an org.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Hints at a possible temporary solution are emerging; though if we’re back in the same position in a month, it’s going to royally suck.

By the way, if this kid doesn’t burst into my house when the shutdown is over, then I’m going to be incredibly disappointed. Good thing I’m used to that feeling by now.

Have I showered today? Yes. Painting makes me sweat.

Chores done: Dishes

Wife-Requested Tasks: Painted the master bathroom.  My wife considers new paint on the walls ‘exciting.’  We have different definitions for the word ‘exciting.’

Video games played: I ain’t got time for that.

Mood: Skeptical.

Republicans seem to be pushing a debt ceiling extension without re-opening the government.  Obama wants both.  I’m not convinced we’ll get there.

Furlough Fun Fact: Furloughed federal workers may seek another job, but they still fall under the ethical restrictions that normally are in place for seeking a second job while employed by the Government.

Movie of the day: Matrix

This whole situation would be a lot better theater with some special effects and bullet-time camera shoots.  For some reason the Matrix movies are on my mind today, so with that I give you the characters from the Matrix movies recast with the major players from both side of the shutdown.  In an attempt at bipartisanship, I will include a Republican and Democrat for all/most characters.

Let’s start with the bad guys:

matrix comparison 2

 

First, the Architect, the father of the Matrix, the one who keeps the system going and alleviates the systemic weakness due to the illusion of choice by inserting the relief valve that is Neo.  For the right, John Boehner is clearly the Architect, the one who has catered to the monsters of the far right and created the untenable situation we are now in.   For the left, Harry Reid refuses to negotiate, Boehner can either pick 17 people and restart Zion or he can destroy everything.  There is no in between.

matrix comparison 3

Now, the Merivingian, the unnecessary mouthpiece of the system who serves no real purpose other than to initiate one of the coolest car chases in film history.  For the right, only Michele Bachmann (of Republicans currently holding office) combines totally, completely crazy with complete and utter pointlessness.  Meanwhile, Sheila Jackson Lee is usually the one spewing crazy for the left, but she’s been remarkably quiet during this climactic standoff.

And finally…

matrix comparison 1

Agent Smith infects the system with himself overwriting every other person and program, infecting the Matrix with his consciousness so he can bring it all crashing down and escape this putrid system. Ted Cruz has roused his followers across the country, taking his brave stand against providing healthcare to the working poor, and he will bring the system to its knees in his bid to overcome the atrocity that is Obamacare.  Meanwhile, President Obama infects the common rabble with his giveaways of Obamaphones, food stamps, and welfare checks and turns the populace into a walking army  of Obamaphiles, unaware that they have been infected by the scourge of evil.

Now for the good guys…

Matrix comparison 5

This crotchety guy, who was more lucky than good, who believed he decided what to do with his ‘boat,’ but who was really not much more than an extra with a speaking part.  Does anyone really believe that Boehner is the one in charge on the right?  Is he really in charge of this careening ship or does that distinction really belong to the person who’s at the steering wheel?  Similarly, Nancy Pelosi has no real power here. The left can fantasize all it wants about moderate conservatives falling in line behind her, but will she actually lead us there?

matrix comparison 4

 

The smooth-talking Morpheus was a believer and could rally others to the cause with his inspiring rhetoric, but in the end he played second fiddle to a false hope that was really just another construct of the system.  Eric Cantor says the right things to the right, but in the end, he’s just a proxy for his current leader. President Obama inspires with his words like no one else, but the hope and change that he pitched have been constrained by a system that he either doesn’t want to change or more likely can’t change.

Matrix comparison 6

Trinity kicks ass and takes names and she will escort our hero until the bitter end, where she will die pointlessly not in a showdown with evil-doers but rather due to some rebar stuck through multiple points on her body.  Paul Ryan is dreamy and his budget proposals will cure the ills of this country, but the underlying tenants of his proposals – reductions in social security and medicare – leave him dead on the doorstep.  Harry Reid throws himself at his tormentors, he takes the abuse of the right, so that the good fight can be fought.  In the end, they will all suffer the same fate.

Which brings us to Neo…

matrix comparison 7

The One.  The only one who can stop the war against the machines  and restore humanity to its rightful place as rulers of this world- or achieve a temporary standdown in hostilities that will likely re-ignite as soon as the movie is over. Ted Cruz can fit fifty gallons in his Texas-sized ten gallon hat and he squashes liberals under the heels of his cowboy boots.  He is the one who will save us from our reckless demise.  For the left, the savior has not yet appeared, but she is out there, lurking.  She alone can stand up to the evils of corporate America and help Washington serve Main street instead of Wall Street; she will be the one.

 

Of course, all this is brought to you by…

matrix comparison 8

 

The Wachowskis, Koch brothers, and George Soros.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F + 2 Days Furlough Report

F + 3 Days Furlough Report

F + 4 Days Furlough Report

FET 155 Hours Furlough Report

FET 203 Hours Furlough Report

FET 203 Hours Furlough Report

Judging by the other furlough beards I saw yesterday, Gillette stock is about to start tumbling.

Judging by the other furlough beards I saw yesterday, Gillette stock is about to start tumbling.

Duration of Furlough: 8 days and counting

Work not done: I was able to work for a few hours yesterday, but in that short time it revealed some issues that are only going to get worse.  We received clarification on the things we can now support as being on-call.  We’re allowed to continue any mission prep activities to support the upcoming cargo missions for Orbital and SpaceX which are on track for later this year or early next year.  We’re also now allowed to support limited crew training for International Space Station crews slated to launch within the next year.  We’ll also continue with our cargo planning for current and future ISS missions.  At this point, the bulk of my team is on-call or on part-time status.  I can follow along for any issues related to these activities and assist if necessary or possible.

What are we not authorized to work on?  Commercial crew program support. We (NASA) have the role of defining requirements for the commercial crew partners, reviewing mission concepts, reviewing proposals, and doing other support work.  Maybe this is being done in other parts of the org, but not in ours.  It’s also not clear to me what work is being done on EFT-1, the first flight of the Orion capsule that is slated for late in 2014.  I don’t have first-hand insight here so I’m not entirely certain of the impacts of the shutdown on this project.

I’ve mentioned before how all of our contractors were forward-funded, which means the government already paid those contractors for services and they can continue work until those funds run out.  Well, as of Friday we’ll have our first contractor run out of funding.  This particular contract handles facility support for our Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where we do EVA training, and our Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where we do other ISS training.  I have no idea how this will be handled, but we obviously need those facilities for ISS crew training as well as some real-time support.  It’s possible more workers could be furloughed with only minimal staff available to support any mandatory activities.  The impacts of this shutdown will only continue to worsen as time passes.

As for me personally, yesterday I missed my monthly tagup with the lead ISS Flight Director, where I discuss the support my groups provide in mission control and any issues related to that support.  Last month, we discussed some critical items such as whether our PLUTO flight controllers needed to provide more support in mission control for ISS visiting vehicle missions and how much food our ISOs need to keep on ISS, but we also discuss more mundane things like whether our ISOs could have another parking spot in parking lot for Mission Control.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: No end in sight.

Have I showered today? No and there appear to be no drivers for today.

Chores done: Dishes.

Wife-Requested Tasks: Start painting our master bathroom.  Should be less work than my role as photographer at my wife’s Star Wars Reads event on Monday. So many children. I’m not allowed to post any pictures of the kids without consent from the parents, so I’ve recreated their looks of joy below.

I've learned all my MS Paint skills from philly.com's Jimmy Kempski.

I’ve learned all my MS Paint skills from philly.com’s Jimmy Kempski.

My wife is a librarian at Whitcomb Elementary, a title 1 school with a lot of disadvantaged children.  She doesn’t get much of a budget, so she’s asking for some help here for a small project if you’re so inclined: http://www.donorschoose.org/mhutt

Video games played: I ain’t got time for that.

Mood: I’ll admit that yesterday morning was a bit of a low point, hence the lack of a post as I’m trying not to be too depressing in these updates.  I’m doing better today after being meaningfully engaged for a bit yesterday.

I’m also smiling a bit at the irony of the situation.  Last week, I mentioned how some trolls were glad the 800,000 leeches were off the Federal payroll.  I bristled at that because I understand the truth of the situation.  Except now, I’m going to get paid but I’m not allowed to work.  Hooray, I’m a leech!

Furlough Fun Fact: Furloughed federal employees in many states are eligible for unemployment benefits. Hooray for costing the states more money for work that should be unnecessary!

Movie of the day: Sneakers - We could all use a little subversion today.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F + 2 Days Furlough Report

F + 3 Days Furlough Report

F + 4 Days Furlough Report

FET 155 Hours Furlough Report

FET 155 Hours – Furlough Report

Switching up the accounting method today in order to make it easier for me to track.  Furlough Elapsed Time (FET) is the time since the Government shutdown on Tuesday, October 1st at 12:01 am until the time when I start this post (usually 11 EST). Now, I don’t have to wonder if I should include weekend days or not.  This is just the total time our government has been shut down.

Furlough beard 10-7

My wife called the gray hairs on my chin ‘cute.’

Duration of Furlough: 6.5 days and counting

Work not done: We start off every Monday with our Weekly Tactical Meeting.  Here we review who is on–console in Mission Control this week and next, who is supporting simulations for crew or flight control team training, what deadlines do we have this week, and what issues need to be addressed this week.  The types of tactical issues we deal with range from the Russians wanting to load some last-minute trash on a US cargo vehicle or vice versa, processing flight rule changes in prep for the next mission, uplinking a software update to ISS, to meeting with the astronaut office to discuss updates to crew training.  The purpose of most of the discussion is to see where we have unresolved issues, what we’re doing to resolve them and is any management support needed to help prod things along.  Since most of our work is tied to the launch of a vehicle or another flight milestone, we need to make sure all of our prep work is done on-time.  Letting something slide until next week doesn’t cut out when millions of dollars are spent making sure rockets launch as scheduled.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Poorer?

Boehner is now demanding more cuts in order to agree to raise the debt limit.  Looks like we’re still going nowhere fast.

Have I showered today? Yes!  Furlough beard survived the weekend!

Chores done: Grocery shopping.

I normally do this with at least 1 kid in tow on a Saturday morning, so doing it today with no kids and an empty store was actually a treat.  I approach grocery shopping the same way we approach ISS cargo – what’s the most efficient way for me to group and pack things so that I can unload them and put them away as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, I don’t have my own personal bar code reader or stowage software to track things.

Wife-Requested Tasks: Come to her school (she’s an elementary school librarian) and help with her Star Wars Reads day activities. With no school Friday, my wife decided to do her activities today, including having some local members of the 501st show up to take pictures with the kids. I get to be the photographer! Sorry, kids.  My wife teaches at a title 1 school with a number of disadvantaged kids, so she goes all out to try and have fun experiences for these kids.

Video games played: None.

Mood: Annoyed.  This is beyond ridiculous and just needs to be done already.

Also, even though back pay has been approved, no federal employees will get that back pay until the shutdown is over.  So, while it’s a relief we’ll get it, we’re not quite out of the woods yet.

Furlough Fun Fact: As being on-call, I can only read emails related to the topic that I am on-call for.

I can now legally check my email but only for items related to our Increment 38 Flight Readiness Review.

Song of the day: Duel of the Fates - John Williams

What happens if NASA funding stays the same or is reduced further?

So far, House Republican leadership has not targeted NASA for any further reductions in funding.  The House has already proposed NASA funding at $16.6 billion for next year.  From space.com:

The House panel’s proposed 2014 appropriation is about $300 million less than what NASA ended up with for 2013, roughly $1.2 billion below the agency’s 2012 budget and about $1.1 billion less than what the White House requested for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

When President Obama first  took office, the Augustine Commission evaluated NASA missions and budget and concluded that NASA needed an additional $3 billion per year in order to achieve the goals they had been given.  What that commission found is that in recent decades, NASA has been underfunded to achieve the goals its been given by this country’s leadership.  President Bush proposed the Constellation program, but never fully funded it. Despite a push to rectify that situation, Obama scuttled the Aries I rocket, but kept the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy rocket and identified a new objective – a mission to capture and rendezvous with an asteroid. Of course with the current environment in Washington, Republicans in the house won’t agree to fund that mission.  So we’re right back to the same old problem – a program with inadequate funding.

People accuse NASA of just being a government jobs program, but the reality is NASA returns a lot to the nation’s economy in addition to furthering scientific research and increasing our understanding of the universe in which we live.  But continuously under-funding programs means stretching out development schedules, mission timelines, and/or cancelling missions outright.  That leaves us with programs with 10 years or longer horizons that won’t survive the change in presidential administrations, which means we’ll do a lot of work towards a mission that will never fly, which means the agency is a jobs program.  If you want NASA to make meaningful achievements that continue to inspire not only the nation but the entire world, then you have to fund the programs appropriately.

You get what you pay for and if you under-fund the agency without de-scoping the mission, we’ll never achieve anything meaningful.  So someone will accuse NASA of being a jobs program, then cut our budget and then act surprised when we don’t get something done on time. Continuing to fund the agency at sequester levels ($16.6 billion) ensures a continuation of this cycle. You can add this to the reasons I currently support the Democrats.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F + 2 Days Furlough Report

F + 3 Days Furlough Report

F + 4 Days Furlough Report

F + 4 Days Furlough Report

Another note of explanation for the non-NASA folks: The time stamp in the title stands for Furlough (F) plus ‘x’ days.  At NASA, we put a clock on every important event.  Proximity to launch dates for spacecraft is tracked as L (for Launch) minus ‘x’ months/weeks/days.  If there’s something significant happening counting down toward an event, we put up a clock in mission control to track it.  We track mission elapsed time, time to morning and evening crew conferences, elapsed time on spacewalks, and dozens of other things.  If something can be counted up to or down from, we’re your agency to do that.  So, these reports come out after 24 more hours elapses on the furlough clock.

Yes, I know I’m a dork, but it’s been ingrained in me for 14 years.

furlough beard 4

Furlough beard – now with 100% less neck beard!

UPDATE: We’ll get back pay!  Congress, I dislike you all just a little less right now!

Duration of Furlough: 4 days

Work not done: Friday, October 4th was going to be a day off for me regardless of the shutdown.  With the local school district having an in-service day, our kids were home, my wife had to work, and I was on Dad duty.  Fridays are usually my most lightly scheduled day of the week and I try to turn my attention to what I can do to make improvements to our organization.  Over the past few months, I’ve used this quiet time to revamp our branch meetings to align with the concepts outlined in Death by Meetings, drafted a career progression white paper to follow our directorate “Top Gun” philosophy – the best flight controllers train the next generation of flight controllers – to help our young engineers understand their potential career paths, and pushed to modernize our knowledge capture practices by using blogs and wikis to share project status information and better store all the information our flight controller and instructor teams need to do their jobs.  I try to use Friday time to make us more efficient so that we can spend our time on what we really want to do – flying spaceships and exploring space.  But as I said, I was planning to take the day off anyway, so in the end, I didn’t miss out on much yesterday.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Still poor.

I make more forward progress on the stair climber at the gym than Congress is making towards finding a solution.   That this could be over if Boehner allowed a vote on a clean CR is incredibly aggravating.

Have I showered today? Yes!  Date night with the wife.  I’ll even have to clean up the scruff a little.  Don’t panic though!  I’ll just be getting rid of some neck beard so I don’t look like this. Although I have to say my wife is a far greater threat to the existence of furlough beard than my job (or lack thereof).

Chores done/Wife-Requested Tasks: I get a belated birthday pass!

Video games played: Injustice: Gods Among Us.

Exciting news – Kirby’s Return to Dreamland is on its way from Gamefly!  I try to get some games that the girls might enjoy.

Mood: Brief moments of relief surrounded by extended periods of head-shaking.

My status was officially changed on Friday at 5 pm from non-excepted to on-call!  The agency has decided it needs to press ahead with the Increment 38 Flight Readiness Review, so I have to come into work for a couple hours next week to make sure we’ve got our piece of that puzzle pulled together.  I’m not going to get paid for those few hours until the shutdown is over, but still.

Furlough Fun Fact: Federal workers  on furlough cannot take leave (vacation time) to compensate for the furlough.

Once the shutdown is over, even if I wanted to take this past week (or two or three for whenever this ends) to cover the time off, I would not be allowed to.  I have a top employee who went on maternity leave in the beginning of September.  She’s not scheduled to return to work until December.  Federal leave laws say she can take 12 weeks of leave.  With the shutdown, her leave stopped on the day of the shutdown and will pick up after the shutdown ends.  She can’t apply any of her leave to the furlough.  Her husband is also a federal worker and they have another toddler.  This whole situation is terrible for many people.

Song of the day: Never Go Hungry -  Hole

If you asked me in college which bands I would still be buying albums from 20 years later, Hole would not have been on the list.  I recognize Courtney Love essentially has new band mates for every album so it’s not exactly the original group, but it’s a wonder that she’s still alive.

Questions?  I’m  happy to answer furlough or NASA questions. If you’re so inclined, leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them in posts as this drags on.

Next update will be Monday.  I may tweak my approach slightly in order to provide updates Monday through Friday.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F + 2 Days Furlough Report

F + 3 Days Furlough Report

F + 3 Days Furlough Report

I get another gray hair each day of the furlough.

I get another gray hair each day of the furlough.

Duration of Furlough: 3 days

Work not done: Yesterday we were supposed to discuss a proposal for supporting Robonaut next year.  Robonaut is a bit of a different beast from  an operations perspective as it’s not within our traditional area of expertise.  Spacecraft systems, while they’ve become more advanced and intricate, have stayed relatively consistent over the decades.  Every spacecraft regardless of purpose has to have a power system, motion or attitude control system, command and data system, communication system, etc.  If the spacecraft carries people it also has a life support system.  Robonaut doesn’t fit into any of those categories; it also isn’t that similar to the robotic arms used on ISS or Shuttle.  It’s analogous to a Mars Rover in many ways, but it must operate inside the living space of the ISS.  As such, we can’t allow it to inadvertently flip a switch, hit a button, or bonk a nearby crewmember.  Robonaut is not autonomous, so there is no fear of a robot uprising.  Given the constraints we place on it (Robonaut will automatically shut down if it detects it’s exerting a very small amount of force on something), we’re from rebellion for some time.

However, someone needs to send it commands, monitor and troubleshoot the command path if necessary, and make sure failsafes kick in at the right moment.  While our engineering guys design Robonaut’s experiments, the PLUTO flight controllers in my branch are currently responsible for conducting those experiments and commanding the little robot who could. As of a couple months ago, we thought Robonaut would not be funded next year, so we cancelled planned support.  A few weeks ago though, we got a call from the science folks saying they had secured funding.  Robonaut could theoretically add a backpack, with a battery and wireless comm system, and a set of legs which would allow it to be mobile.  So we were supposed to be discussing how we would support this experimental robot going forward.

Also, yesterday was also the day I approve timecards for all the civil servants in my branch so that they can get paid.  We get paid at 2 week intervals.  Our next paychecks are due on October 11th.  We’ll all get a check that covers work from September 23rd – 30th, but we’ll receive nothing for any time after the shutdown. Back pay for those on furlough is not guaranteed.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Still poor.

The best hope of seeing this end before the debt ceiling deadline of October 17th is that a small group of Republicans breaks off from the rest of the party and supports a clean resolution.  House leadership most likely won’t allow that.

Have I showered today? Not yet.  Soon, I promise.

Chores done: Cleaned playroom with kids. Can now walk without fear of stepping on a Lego or hair band.

Wife-requested tasks: Take care of all 3 girls for the day (it’s an in-service day for the school district).

Video games played: None, see above.

Mood: Calm, with brief moments of parental anger.

Furlough Fun Fact: It is illegal for a federal worker on furlough to use government issued smartphones or laptops (sorry, can’t find a good link).

My government-provided iPhone 4S, given so that I can be notified immediately in the event of an ISS emergency, an issue with flight controller or instructor support of ISS operations, or any other organizational issue, sits in its charging cradle on my kitchen counter, calling to me.  I try not to listen.  Instead, I am forced to use my personal iPhone 3G, which based on the date stamp in the twitter app, I hadn’t used in 958 days.  I’ve used my government phone for years, because beyond my wife calling me at work, I don’t talk to anyone on the phone (I am a bit of a misanthrope).

So I went to the AT&T store yesterday, asked about the iPhone 5S and settled for a 2-year old iPhone 4S…but it was $.99!

Song of the day: Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Movie of the Day: Mr. Mom

I’m slightly more competent than Michael Keaton.

Answering Furlough Questions:

How did we decide who was essential vs. non-essential?

I admit I was irritated by a twitter troll who was happy that 800,000+ leeches had been removed from the payroll, referring to the federal workers had been furloughed.  I resisted the flame-bait but I thought I’d clarify how we determined who was considered ‘essential’.  For us, it wasn’t about differences in ability; it all came down to who was scheduled to work in mission control or who had an Expedition crew in training.  If a civil servant was already on the console schedule then they were essential; if they weren’t, they were non-essential.  We try to give our flight controllers at least 2 weeks working in the office after one week of console ops in mission control.  This keeps them sharp and operating at a high-level.  As this furlough draws on, some of the folks who were not originally deemed essential will be granted that status. For us in mission ops, essential vs. non-essential was just the luck of the draw.

All management was also deemed non-essential because I don’t work in mission control or train crews.  I used to, and I was fairly good at it, which is why I now run a department of almost 80 people. Am I a leech or just an incompetent do-nothing manager?  Obviously, I can’t answer that question objectively.  You’ll have to make your own conclusion on that one.

I have to go now, before my girls kill each other.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F + 2 Days Furlough Report

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