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


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.


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 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

How to Train for a Dragon: Preparing for the First ISS Commercial Partner

Via universetoday.com

If everything holds, early Saturday Tuesday will see the  launch of the first commercially-operated space vehicle that will provide supplies to the International Space Station.  This is an important milestone for NASA’s potential commercial spaceflight partners and one that will hopefully restore some positive vibes to our struggling human spaceflight program.  This flight represents the culmination of 6 years of work between NASA and SpaceX and over that time we’ve had to learn quite a bit about working with each other.  There have been many challenges and lessons learned over the past few years as we’ve prepared for this moment, many of which I know little to nothing about, but I thought I’d share a few of the things we had to do  to get to this point.

At first, we didn’t know what to expect out of this endeavor.  This was not Boeing or Lockheed Martin or any other partner we had experience working with.  SpaceX was a complete unknown.  We didn’t know what to expect from them and they didn’t know what to expect from us.  The first thing we had to do, just like we did with all the international partners, was learn to speak the same language.  Once Dragon gets close enough to ISS, it falls under the authority of the NASA Flight Director and Mission Control Team.  This means SpaceX needs to operate within a certain framework, it needs to be able to provide the right data to the team in Houston and the Dragon control team in California must be able to operate in concert with the ISS control team in Houston.

Our first challenge, as with any mission, is to figure out what and who needs to be trained.  Obviously, the astronauts on ISS need to learn to operate Dragon and be able to successfully capture the spacecraft.  SpaceX will train the astronauts on the spacecraft systems and operation.  For these test flights, astronauts will spend a day or two at the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA. There the SpaceX engineers will teach them about the design of the craft.   In order to decrease travel costs, training for cargo resupply flights will actually occur in Houston at a mockup located at Johnson Space Center.  But for the test flights, every crew that could potentially be on-orbit when Dragon was launched spent a couple of days out at SpaceX.

Before this astronaut training occurred, the NASA training lead assigned to the flight offered a bit of guidance to SpaceX on how to scope the content the crew needed.  We’ve been training ISS crews for 15 years.  The information provided to astronauts is carefully scoped to focus training only on the things they really need to know.  We’ve tried to eliminate as much superfluous content as possible.  The training program is far from perfect, but it has been well refined over the years.  Our initial goal was to help the SpaceX team be showing them our best practices for how to provide training so that they may learn from our mistakes.

With the initial crew training in place, we could turn our attention to flight control team training.  The NASA Station Training Lead, Flight Director, and SpaceX leads worked together to identify what the flight control teams would need to practice in order to be ready to fly the mission.  We needed to practice the Dragon rendezvous with ISS, both under nominal conditions where everything goes smoothly and off-nominal conditions where the teams can practice responding to contingency situations.  We would need to practice have the ISS robotic arm grapple, or grab hold, of Dragon and berth it to ISS.  We would like to practice the ingress and activation of Dragon systems once it is docked and make sure both teams know what to do in the event an emergency occurs while Dragon is docked.

To do all this, we would need to run simulations and to run those simulations we would need a simulator.  SpaceX would operate a simulator of the Dragon vehicle, NASA would operate a simulator of ISS, and we would have to figure out a way to get the two of them to work together.  This isn’t like getting a couple of people together to play Left 4 Dead; this is like trying to connect someone playing Skyrim with a group of people playing World of Warcraft.  The simulators had to exchange the right information, they  needed to stay in sync, one needed to be able to follow the lead of the other, and they needed to do it all with little to no lag.  This is an incredibly difficult process, so much so that we had to find interim solutions for the demo flight until we can put in place a permanent solution for future missions.

Once the simulators could function together, then we could practice Dragon rendezvous, berthing, and ISS-docked operations with both the SpaceX team at Hawthorne and the NASA Mission Control Team in Houston through  multiple simulations.  Prior to every simulation, the training leads for NASA and SpaceX would coordinate on the script for the sim.  We plan out every malfunction and discuss the expected outcome so that we can ensure we are maximizing the training value of the simulation.  We’ll run more than a dozen of these to ensure that the two teams know how to communicate, to make sure SpaceX knows what data NASA needs at a moment’s notice, and to make sure we’re prepared for the truly horrific contingencies.

The worst possible outcome here is that Dragon loses control on approach to ISS and there is a collision between the two vehicles that puts the lives of the ISS crew at risk.  This happened with the Russian MIR Space Station in 1997, when an automated Progress supply vehicle collided with that station.  We are well-acquainted with the risks.  We know what we need to protect against.  Everyone on both control teams and the ISS crew needs to fully understand their role in safely bringing Dragon to ISS.

That brings me to the final bit of preparation – on-board training for the ISS crew.  Astronauts Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will be monitoring Dragon’s approach and have the ability to abort that approach if Dragon malfunctions.  They will also be responsible for grappling the capsule with the ISS robotic arm.  While they were well-trained prior to their mission, they arrived on ISS in mid-December and that knowledge is hardly fresh in their mind.  So the training team puts together a series of review lessons with a laptop-based simulator that allows the crew to practice what they’ll need to do.  They’ve gone through several of these sessions over the past few weeks.

At this point, the crew is trained; the mission control teams are trained.

Everyone in Houston is ready to catch a Dragon.

Spaceship Design of Dust or Everything I Know about Spaceship Design I Learned from the International Space Station

In writing Dust, the first element of the setting that I defined was the Hannah, Max Cabot’s medium-class freighter that serves as the setting for a good portion of the story.  My biggest challenge when writing Dust was to not try and explain how every little thing worked in the flow of the story.  I would often have to go back and remove sections that I ultimately felt went into too much detail.  Instead, I figured I would save those details for some behind-the-scenes posts on here.

Spaceship design is something that I have been playing around with since I was about ten years old.  One year, my mom brought me home a tablet of graph paper from her civil engineering firm and I spent hours and hours drawing spaceship layouts, identifying where the ships systems were, challenging myself to come up with designs that weren’t recognizable as ships from Star Wars or Star Trek.

In college, spaceship design and function continued to dominate my creative thoughts.  It was then that I wrote the short story “The Scout” which was an attempt to write a short story where the main character was the ship itself and its journey through space.  Finally, a year after I graduated from college, I started working on the International Space Station (ISS) and I got to delve into the design of a real spaceship.

My first assignment on ISS was as an instructor for life support systems, so it should come as no surprise that the Hannnah’s systems reflect much of what I learned then.  From a life support systems perspective, the ISS is the first spacecraft that has attempted to have a close-looped system.  For a spaceship that is going to spend much of its time in space, you want an efficient system that will not waste any resources.  On ISS, an oxygen generator uses water produce oxygen and has a leftover component of hydrogen. A separate system removes carbon dioxide from the air.  The oxygen from that carbon dioxide is combined with the hydrogen from the oxygen generator to then form water, which when processed can be used to produce oxygen, and so on.  The key philosophy here is that a spaceship has to recycle everything and waste as little as possible.  The more you waste, the more you have to replenish.  ISS doesn’t have a truly closed system, but it’s taken great strides towards one.

About a third of the way through Dust, the Hannah experiences problems with rising carbon dioxide levels.  Max then embarks on a hunt to figure out why this is happening.  One of my favorite lines of Max’s is when he says that there are no mysteries on-board a spaceship.  Everything is definable; there are few variables.  Everything that happens in that closed environment has a limited set of contributors and probable outcomes.  Max knows this and immediately knows that something is amiss.

At this point, Max starts tearing apart the ship to find the source of his problem.  This reflects another lesson learned from ISS: everything breaks.  Every component on ISS has been pored over, rigorously tested, and then operated on Earth to make sure it works.  Even still, things are constantly breaking.  Before the ISS was fully complete and it didn’t have fully redundant systems, the biggest threats to having to abandon the station were that the oxygen generator would break, the carbon dioxide remover would break, or that the toilet would break.  And those three things broke with disheartening regularity in the early days of the program.

It was only natural to me then that the Hannah would constantly be having problems.  While I fully expect that in 500 years a top-of-the-line spaceship will be full of self-healing alloys, self-healing nanostructures, and other “unbreakable” components, the reality for Max is that he flies the equivalent of a 30-year-old used Winnebago.  Nothing heals itself, half the ship is replacement parts, and nothing runs for too long without breaking.  Someday, when spaceships are as ubiquitous as cars, we will have to deal with the reality that not everything is a top-of-the-line model.  When that happens, I hope the owner has a maintenance robot of their own to help with all of the repairs.

On the ISS when something breaks, the crew knows that they will be spending some time within the next couple of weeks replacing something, which means they’ll have to go digging through storage areas to find the spare parts.  Then they’ll have to spend a good deal of time cutting through clutter to get what to what they need.  Pictures of the inside of ISS, like the one below, show that the station is jam-packed with stuff.

So, my procedure says to follow the white wire...

For this, I gave Max a bit of an advantage as he gets to use a 3D printer to generate replacement parts.  I had to do something to cut out the piles of stuff that would otherwise be lining the floor.  I did however try to preserve the concept that there is no wasted space aboard the ship.  Behind every panel is some vital piece of equipment.  Throughout the story, Max is forced to worm and weasel his way into and out of tight spaces all in the name of making a living.

So through the Hannah’s systems and operation, I tried to reflect a realistic spaceship environment.  That realism though means the entire ship is one big pain-in-the-ass for Max to run by himself which is what ultimately leads Max to trying to hire on some extra help.  I could have made the ship less of a junker, but I’m confident that Max wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Dust is available in the Amazon Kindle store for $3.99 and is free for Amazon Prime members.

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.





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.