The Continued Evolution of Human Spaceflight Training

In my department, we have no less than a dozen different efforts designed to improve the quality of training provided to flight controllers, astronauts, and fellow instructors in preparation for human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of its supporting vehicles.  From creating new simulators that provide better on-orbit training capabilities to working with Harvard and UCLA to better prepare flight controllers for the stresses and fatigue of console work to implementing the use of Web 2.0 tools to improve how we communicate and collaborate, we constantly strive to find new ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the training we provide.

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs when the astronaut corps was comprised of mostly test pilots who knew every facet of how their experimental vehicles operated.  Those astronauts were supported by hundreds of the best engineers on the planet who knew the ins and outs of every nut, bolt, circuit board, and vacuum tube that comprised those vehicles.  The astronauts were responsible for flipping every switch on those spacecraft; they controlled the horizontal and the vertical and everything in between.

With shuttle, we not only had pilots and commanders who knew every facet of the vehicle but we also had mission specialists and payload specialists who were responsible for their own specialized tasks.  Those tasks ranged from extra-vehicular activities (EVAs), space walks, to using the Shuttle and ISS robotic arms to perform ISS assembly tasks, to wide array of scientific experiments focusing on anything from materials science to studies of the human body.  Those crews, initially supported by teams of hundreds as in the early programs, eventually were supported by teams of dozens as we grew more adept at operating the shuttle.

With ISS, we faced different challenges.  In took some time for us to adjust to the ISS paradigm where the astronauts do not pilot the vehicle; the mission control team does.  With shuttle and the earlier vehicles the astronauts controlled just about everything and knew every inch of their spacecraft; that is almost an impossibility with the ISS.  The vehicle is too large and too complex for any one person or two people to control.  Now, mission control teams in Houston, Huntsville, Toulouse, Munich, Moscow, and Tsukuba, fly the vehicle on a day-to-day basis.  Those mission control teams control the orientation of the vehicle, change its attitude, maneuver the vehicle to avoid orbital debris, control ISS power, life support, computer systems, etc.

With crew members freed from the majority of these vehicle control capabilities, that leaves them free to perform two things: science and maintenance.  Currently, ISS crews are expected to perform 35 hours per week of science experiments, ensuring that we are using this national laboratory for its intended purpose.  The majority of the rest of their time is spent taking care of themselves and the vehicle.

To take care of themselves, every crew member is expected to do at least two hours per day of exercise.  To ensure they stay sharp mentally, they are given plenty of resources and time to stay in touch with family members or to entertain themselves with their leisure activity of choice.

Beyond that, fixing the vehicle takes up the rest of their time.  One of the many things that I love about the original Star Wars trilogy is the spaceships, in particular the Millennium Falcon.  The Falcon isn’t some sleek, smooth, perfectly operating vehicle; it breaks.  The hyperdrive doesn’t work, it suffers burnouts, and various other problems as the ship attempts to lurch from planet to planet.  This is one thing the George Lucas got right.

We don't have hydrospanners yet, but I'm sure we will some day.

Filters get clogged.  Valves get stuck.  Software gets corrupted.  Electrical components short out.  When any of those things happen, the affected equipment needs to be fixed or replaced and while there are dozens of mission controllers on Earth who can tell the crew what to do; there are only six people in space who can actually do that work.  Every day, the ISS crew spends time fixing things with support from their mission control teams.

So instead of training pilots, we train repairmen and women and scientists.  We train them to live in a house, a house with the best customer support in the world, but not to fly a spaceship.  Mission control teams no longer just support the crew; they fly the vehicle.  We have to train accordingly.

With the right funding and a little luck, we on the NASA-side will resume training pilots to fly any of four or five different spacecraft to fly to ISS.  For now though, that pilot training is the responsibility of our Russian colleagues. Once those vehicles are in place, we will hopefully set our sites outward in the solar system.  Then our training challenges will multiply.

We will again have to shift our focus.  Astronauts will once again be in charge of the spacecraft.  Once the spacecraft gets far enough away from Earth, it will no longer be practical for the ground to control all aspects of the vehicle.  Once again we will have pilots, but with the long duration nature of missions, we will need more repairmen and women.  And in addition to those roles, there will of course be scientists ready to carry out our next steps of scientific discovery in the solar system.

For ISS, we already face challenges with having to train so much information that there is no way one person can retain it all.  To offset that, we are challenged to produce training materials that can be delivered to the crew members at the moment they need them.  Astronauts receive 2.5 years of training; flight controllers receive another 2.5.  All to operate a vehicle that we are able to communicate with instantly.

In the future, we won’t have that luxury.  But equipment will still break and the crew will need to fix it.  Astronauts will need to maintain their piloting skills even while on the surface of Mars or an asteroid. They will need to set up habitats, operate rovers, perform surface EVAs, etc.  It won’t be practical to train all of this prior to a mission.

Over the next decade, my organization is challenged with developing the means and methods of providing efficient and effective training to crews and mission controllers when and where they need it.  We will do this while still providing training to astronauts and mission controllers the operate and utilize the ISS.  To do this, we will use ISS as a test bed just as ISS will be used as a test bed for new technologies in propulsion and spacecraft equipment.

This is a challenge that I and many of my people are eager to tackle.





Assaulting the English Language One Acronym at a Time

Throw this away; it will do you no good here.

When a person first goes through the gates of Johnson Space Center and begins his or her career in human spaceflight operations, he or she will enter the workplace with dreams of embarking on a grand adventure to advance humanity’s reach into the unfamiliar expanse of the cosmos.  That person will walk in the doors with a mixture of excitement and nervousness ready to make a difference.  Then, he or she will speak to their coworkers and out of their mouths will spew a stream of inscrutable letters and numbers that have some vague tie to the English language.

The first challenge that every new employee must overcome is learning to speak the language.  At this point, it’s cliché to say that NASA has its own language.  Except, this particular cliché is based in absolute fact and you have no idea the depth of the problem until you become immersed in the culture.  NASA is hardly unique when it comes to jargon, but we seem to take personal delight in developing new, obscure terminology, and then simplifying that term by turning it into an acronym.  On-board the International Space Station (ISS), we don’t have air conditioners; we have Common Cabin Air Assemblies (CCAA).  We don’t have a gas mask; we have a Portable Breathing Apparatus (PBA).  We don’t have computers; we have Multiplexer/De-multiplexers (MDMs).

We will make acronyms into words, such as the acronym for the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ, pronounced Sarge) or the Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System (SSPTS, pronounces SPITS).  We have acronyms that stand for multiple things; LCA can stand for Lab Cradle Assembly, Loop Crossover Assembly, or the Load Control Assembly.  We have different acronyms for the same hardware; a laptop, identical in hardware, will either be called a Station Support Computer (SSC) or a Portable Computer System (PCS) depending on how the computer is used.

We don’t just use acronyms for hardware; we use them for facilities such as the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) or Space Station Training Facility (SSTF).  Inside the SVMF, you’ll find the Space Station Mockup Training Facility (SSMTF) and formerly the Shuttle Mockup Training Facility (SMTF) which you could reserve for use through the Operations Control Center (OCC).

We also use them for meetings such as the Flight Operations Integration Group (FOIG, pronounced either Foyg or Foe-ig depending on who you’re talking to).  We use them to identify organizations positions such as Visiting Vehicle Officers (VVOs) or Integrated System Engineers (ISEs, pronounced ice).  We use them for forms, files, and reports; be sure you know if you need to file an Anomaly Report (AR), Discrepancy Report (DR), Change Request (CR), or some other report.  Yes, someone even created TPS reports, though I don’t remember what it’s supposed to stand for.

I’m not sure if it was heartening or disheartening to learn that the love and overuse of acronyms in spaceflight was not limited to NASA.  Each international partner brings with them their own set of terminology.  Perhaps the most egregious example of our overuse of acronyms came with respect to cabin lighting.  We don’t have cabin lights; we have General Luminaire Assemblies (GLAs).  Those same pieces of equipment in the European Columbus module were called MLUs – Module Lighting Units.  Eventually, both sides reasonably agreed to use one term for those lights.

Despite our over-reliance on these word jumbles there is usually a method to the madness.  Every component has an official name or operations nomenclature (ops nom for short).  Once the ops nom is approved, that name is used consistently in every piece of documentation – reference manuals, training briefs, schematics, procedures, flight rules, etc. – so that everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about when you use that name.

In critical operations, it is important that there is no ambiguity when you are referring to a specific location or component.  In fire response, when an astronaut reports to mission control that the crew believes there is a fire in the LAB1D6 rack, everyone on the crew and on the ground knows exactly what they are talking about.  When the ISS computer system spits out a message that says the LAB1P6 CCAA has failed, everyone involved knows what that means in as few characters as possible.

To get to that level of understanding takes time and is the first obstacle that any new person must overcome.  There have been several noble attempts to compile references to help new people sort through all this terminology, though most lists are incomplete.  That’s why even our official system allows employees to make inputs and updates.  The use of acronyms is pervasive, though, and once accepted into the culture, people don’t often consciously realize when they are using them.  The meaning behind the acronym then becomes irrelevant, and the acronym is used as the name.  Plenty of people have forgotten the words or titles that acronyms stand for, even the ones they use on a daily basis.

To train people properly on these titles, we do exactly what I’ve done here.  Wherever possible, we relate the terms to the common, Earthly objects to which they refer.  With that, enough repetition, and immersion in the environment, you’ll be speaking NASA-ese in no time at all.  But, should you ever switch departments, projects, or programs, expect to have to learn a whole new set of terminology.

Despite the common acceptance of acronyms, we do recognize that they are overused.  When the Constellation Program was in its infancy, a recommendation was passed forward to call a light, a light or to call a pump, a pump.  Even though we can use complex terminology, it helps every person entering the organization if they don’t have to learn a new language when they walk in the door.

Although sometimes, acronyms are used because they are fun, such as when the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office was called C3PO.  But since we all have our inner (or outer) geeks here, we’ll always use acronyms like that.

Fight Fires…IN SPACE!

Welcome aboard the International Space Station!  You’ve already spent two and a half years getting ready for this moment and now you’re living the dream.  Every day, you spend your time running science experiments, doing routine maintenance on equipment, fixing things that break, and doing anything else you can to advance human exploration of space.

Then one day, something terrible happens.

It starts with a smell, a burning electrical odor, and then the next thing you know, the air around you looks hazy, like some mid-summer Houston smog has settled into the air.  Thanks to your excellent training, you know just what to do.  Instincts take over and you react swiftly.

The first thing you do is push a button that lets the entire crew and all the mission control centers around the world know that there is a fire aboard the space station.  Major news agencies will pick up on this within minutes.  Soon, the entire world will know that there’s an emergency on the station; the lives of the six crewmembers on board are now at risk.  You’ve now got everyone’s undivided attention.

With any luck, this is not like the solid fuel oxygen generator fire that occurred aboard MIR.  That was a fire that could not be put out with an extinguisher and was hot enough to melt metal.  You’re also hoping it has nothing to do with the 100% oxygen system that provides oxygen to experiments and emergency gas masks across the US segment.  Either of those situations could be catastrophic.

So you’re ready to face the worst, ready to charge in and be the hero, to save the day and ultimately grace the cover of the New York Times and Washington Post.  You’ll also be able to line up a pretty good book deal.  You look to the module to your left.   It’s full of smoke.  You need to save the lives of the crew and preserve this multi-billion dollar investment.  You charge in ready to save the day.

And you’ve killed yourself.  You just suffocated yourself with carbon monoxide or hydrogen cyanide.

You apparently didn’t build up enough of a survival instinct in your training to know that you shouldn’t go charging blindly in to save the day.

So let’s back up.  Once you’ve sounded the alarm, the first thing you do is get the whole crew together.  Make sure everyone is safe, accounted for, and you’re all on the same page with respect to what you need to do.  Since you see smoke, you know you’ll need a gas mask of some sort, there’s a couple of different varieties and you grab whatever is handy.  Time is of the essence here, you don’t want whatever small fire is burning to blossom into something that’ll destroy the station and kill everyone on-board.

Now, you’ve made sure everyone know what’s going on, everyone is safe, and you have a plan of attack.  You go back to where you think the problem is, with a friend of course since you’re not going about this alone.  The buddy system once again has its uses.  You see plenty of smoke, but thankfully or not,  no ball of fire.  Now, you realize you are in the middle of a module filled with dozens upon dozens of electronic components that could be the source of the fire.

Most of those components have been built with materials that are fire resistant, but in microgravity things get in unintended places, wires can rub against other things, a piece of flotsam can jam a motor, or any other series of unfortunate events could have happened to lead to this point.  But you’re still in the middle of this module, ready to do the hero’s work.  You just need to know where to do that work.

At last word comes from another crew member elsewhere on the station, he or she’s got some places for you to look.  She’s sitting at a laptop, in relative security, looking over station telemetry to try and find some clues to the fire’s location.  She tells you.  You grab your extinguisher, you fire it off, you’re the hero!

Except you just wasted the extinguisher because that’s not where the fire was.  And you went shooting across the module and damn near knocked yourself out because in microgravity discharging a fire extinguisher is like firing off a jetpack.  Next time remember to secure your feet.


See, just because a piece of equipment is in a certain spot on the station, that doesn’t mean that its power source is in the same spot.  Imagine you’re at home and you’ve got a light plugged in on one end of a long room.  You have it plugged into an extension cord to reach an outlet on the other side of the room.  Now, say there’s a fire at the electrical outlet.  You’re first sign that something is wrong may be that the light goes out, but you’re not doing much good by using a fire extinguisher on the lamp.

Now, imagine there were a hundred such lamps in the room and one of them catches fire.  What’s the first thing you want to do?  If a toaster, radio, or something else starts to smoke, what’s the first thing you do?  You turn it off.  The same thing is true on the ISS; if you know what’s burning, you turn it off.  Now, with a hundred lamps connected to, say, twenty-five extension cords, it could take awhile to figure out the right one to turn off.  Just to be safe, we’ll shut off the power to the entire room.

The same philosophy applies to the space station and that is what you’re ready to do.  At this point, your helpful companion in the other module knows what piece of equipment might be on fire and where it’s plugged in.  You turn it off and if that doesn’t put out the fire, you’re finally ready to use the extinguisher.  You remember to secure your feet and you’re wearing a gas mask so that when you use the extinguisher you don’t kill yourself by surrounding yourself in a cloud of carbon dioxide.

U.S. fire extinguishers aboard the ISS don’t use water.  Instead, they release carbon dioxide.  Just removing oxygen that the fire needs to burn is good enough to put out the fire and maybe you’ve preserved some other expensive, delicate equipment that wouldn’t be able to handle being doused with water.  Russian fire extinguishers use a soapy foamy substance.  Those are not supposed to be used in U.S. modules.

Finally, the fire is out.  You are the hero you knew you could be.  Now you can close off the module and take a break while you and mission control put together a plan to clean up this mess.

Well done.


This post was inspired by a picture that future crew member and commander of ISS Chris Hadfield posted which provided a behind-the-scenes look at ISS fire response training.

Training astronauts - our instructors found a way to make a s... on Twitpic
We acquired that smoke machine about a decade ago in an attempt to create a more realistic environment for our fire response training while still meeting all of NASA’s stringent safety guidelines.  The smoke is harmless, but is realistic enough to create a sense of urgency in this training.  This is an approach we stole from the airline industry.  I spent five years as an Environmental Control and Life Support (ECLSS) instructor for ISS.  Fire response was one of the few things we trained the crew on that we hope they will never use.

Become an Astronaut; see the world (the hard way)

One more space post before I get the ball rolling on some other topics…

Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

Let’s say for a minute that your life’s goal is to become an Astronaut.  You work your entire life to put yourself in a position to be selected.  You have multiple degrees in math, science, engineering, medicine, or other related disciplines.  You establish yourself as elite in your field of study.  You’ve kept yourself in peak physical condition.  You’ve had the good fortune to stay in perfect health.  You’ve also have the combination of charisma, talent, determination, and luck to make it through the entire Astronaut selection process.  You’ve been selected; you’ve achieved your life’s goal!


Now the hard work really begins.  After you complete roughly two years of basic training, you work through some office duties, biding your time until you’re selected to be on an International Space Station crew.  For the next ten years, given present NASA goals, the ISS will be the only game in town when it comes to a manned outpost in space.  This is our penultimate destination at the moment.  That’s no slight on ISS either as it’s easily one of the most complex engineering projects humankind has ever produced.

So, you’re slated to be an Expedition crewmember.  What are you in for?  Two and a half years of training in preparation for six months on orbit.  You’re going to go around the world, literally, to train for this endeavor.  Roughly half of that time will be spent in the US learning how to operate the US modules of the station, learning how to perform a spacewalk, and being poked and prodded as you’re not only conducting but the subject of multiple science experiments.

You’ll also travel to Star City, Russia, roughly every other month.  For the next three to five years, the Russian Soyuz will be the only means of reaching Earth orbit.  So you’ll spend roughly eleven months over there learning to be a co-pilot or maybe you’ll be lucky and spend only six months or so there because you’re only a passenger.  You also have to learn how to safely operate some Russian ISS equipment too, like fire extinguishers, gas masks, and other safety critical equipment.

In addition to that, you’ll spend just under two months in Cologne, Germany, but you’ll only go for roughly two weeks at a time.  There you’ll learn to operate the Columbus module or perhaps how to safely dock the European Space Agency’s cargo vehicle, the ATV, in addition to learning about more potential experiments.

We won’t stop there though as you’ll also make your way to Tsukuba, Japan.  In the two months you spend there, one week at a time, you’ll learn to operate the Japanese Exploration and Aerospace Agency’s Kibo module as well as their cargo vessel, the HTV, and the Japanese robotic arm.

Speaking of the robotic arm, you’ll also spend a couple of weeks in Montreal, Canada, learning how to operate the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS).  This is the giant robotic arm that has been a part of almost every ISS assembly mission for the last ten years.

You’ll do all that plus travel to different sites in the US, possibly visiting SpaceX or Orbital facilities to learn to operate their Dragon and Cygnnus vehicles.

In two and a half years, you’ll learn to live in the ISS, fly on a Soyuz, rendezvous with an ATV, HTV, Dragon, or Cygnus vehicle, perform an EVA, and on top of that, you’ll need to learn how to converse in Russian.  After all, your crew will include at least three Cosmonauts among the six person complement.

So be prepared.  The next two and a half years will be scripted down to the minute.  You’ll be able to take some vacation, but even that will need to be negotiated among a panel of schedule integrators representing space agencies around the globe. Your time is no longer your own.

Why do we do it this way?  Wouldn’t it be easier to do all in one country?  Well, imagine you are the president of a space agency in this program.  You’re agency sinks millions of dollars and millions of hours into developing a vital component for the station.  Don’t you think for all that time and effort you would like to have the reward, the morale boost, the good PR, of having the crew visit your installation?  Don’t you think the President of your country would also expect that small return on investment for all of the taxpayer dollars that are funneled into the program?

There’s other practical reasons for this, too.  It would be very expensive for the international partners to replicate high or even medium fidelity trainers at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  It would also cost quite a bit to either continuously fly personnel to Houston to provide training or to continuously train instructors resident at JSC to provide that training.

For these reasons, it’s a lot easier to fly you, the Astronaut, the public face of space exploration, around the world to each of these installations.  Your ultimate reward in all this is six months in the heavens, getting to experience what so few have.  I have no doubt it’s worth it, but recognize the toll it takes, not only on you but also your family.

I wrote this to give some small bit of insight into the long, winding journey that is Astronaut training.  Much of this is what my office manages on a day-to-day basis, something that I am very proud to play a small part in.