Misconceptions about the Future of Human Spaceflight

This week, someone stumbled across this blog while searching for an answer to this question: “will jaxa houston operation close after the last shuttle retirement?”

Two weeks ago, I read a comment on my favorite tech blog, Gizmodo, asking why NASA still needed an astronaut corps if the NASA human spaceflight program had been cancelled.

Before that, I was told about this exchange from a friend of mine:

Waitress – Where do you work?

Friend – JSC.

Waitress – Oh, you mean the credit union?

Friend – No, the space center.

Waitress – Oh, I thought that place had been shut down.


Everyone here recognizes we are not about to enter the golden age of NASA human spaceflight programs.  There’s even the depressing possibility that those days are long behind us and we will never again achieve the high points of the past.  The future right now is far from certain and there are a number of possibilities in the years ahead.

First and foremost, NASA will be operating the International Space Station for at least the next ten years.  This means that, with any luck, there will be a NASA astronaut in space every day for the next ten years.  Not only will there be one, but there could be as many as three, while part of a larger crew of six or seven people.  Humans have lived in space aboard the space station for the past ten years and will continue to do so for the next ten years or more.

Twenty years of continuous human presence in space will be quite an achievement if we can pull it off.  We’ll definitely need a lot of luck in addition to the hard work, determination, and expertise of every astronaut, flight controller, or instructor.

For the next 3-4 years, the only ride to ISS will be aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft, a stalwart capsule that has been in service for 50+ years.  Once we hit 2015 or 2016, things look a little more unclear and different possibilities emerge.  Currently four U.S. companies, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin, and Boeing, are building possible crewed vehicles capable of launching into low Earth orbit and rendezvousing with the space station.  In addition to these companies, several others are also still developing potential crew vehicles.

Once one or two of those companies succeed, we will no longer be dependent on the Soyuz to get to orbit.  The successful commercial companies will secure government contracts that will require them to fly a couple of times per year to the space station. At that point, NASA will likely be the only customer in town, though it’s possible a company like Bigelow Aerospace will have the first commercial space station in orbit at that time.

If those companies do not succeed, NASA is developing its own vehicle, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  The MPCV is a capsule that is intended to be able to go to ISS and beyond.

What people often miss is that many of the previous NASA human spaceflight vehicles were built by private contractors.  The Space Shuttle and Apollo capsules were built by private companies and turned over to NASA for operation.  The difference here would be in the operation of the vehicle.  These companies could operate the vehicles themselves or partner with NASA to do it, but either way, they would ultimately be coming to the space station and working with NASA to successfully complete missions.

Before the next vehicle becomes operational, my hope is that we will have settled on what our next human spaceflight goal will be.  The possibilities include a return to the Moon, a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, or even a mission to one of Mars’ moons.  If we’re going to take advantage of the development of a new vehicle, either MPCV or otherwise, to go to another destination then we will need to start planning within the next couple of years.

In order for our future programs to be successful, we cannot approach these projects as a means to leave footprints on the ground.  We have to approach them to leave an infrastructure in place that will allow for continued expansion of commercial companies into the solar system.

In my opinion, the government will always need to be out in front, laying down the infrastructure that will allow commercial companies to be profitable.  If ISS didn’t exist, the only market for services would be for millionaire space tourists.  NASA is defraying the development costs of the commercial companies to encourage their participation.  Take that away and take ISS as a destination away and do all of these companies continue to make the progress they do?

I’m not sure of that.  I wouldn’t put it beyond one of the Über-rich space enthusiasts to try this without assistance, but their will be a lot of risk and the cost of failure will be very high.

Beyond the ISS, NASA will take the burden of doing the initial forays to an asteroid and learning what it’s like to live and work there before opening up the future markets for asteroid mining.  This is probably the next profitable endeavor in space beyond tourism.

All of that, though, is a pipe dream until a vehicle gets built.  So we will continue to work to use the ISS to the fullest of its capabilities, but my hope is that once we get a vehicle in place, then we will really take off (pun absolutely intended).

Hopefully the next time someone searches about the demise of human spaceflight, they’ll stumble across this and see that while the future is uncertain, there is reason for hope in the long run.  NASA will continue to send humans into space.  NASA will continue to operate the space station.  Someday, humans will live on other worlds in the Solar System and I firmly believe NASA will be a key part of it.  Of course I believe that,  I plan to push that direction as hard as I can.


Diplomacy Through Space Station Construction

This past weekend, Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly declared International Space Station assembly to be complete.  With that, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my experiences working on the ISS for the past 12 years.

One thing that I would love for more people to understand is how international in nature this project has been.  This is truly a global achievement!  Just from my little arena in spaceflight training, we’ve worked intensively with the Japanese, Russians, Europeans, and Canadians.

We at NASA are considered the integrators for the space station program.  From a training perspective, that means we review and approve all astronaut training requirements and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill those requirements.

This amount of collaboration requires painstaking attention to detail, thorough documentation, and, given that we all speak different languages, lots and lots of communication.  Lots.

When I was 25, I took my first trip to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.  At that point, I had never traveled outside of the country with the exception of a couple of quick trips to Canada.  But there I was with all of two years experience, meeting with my life support system counterparts.  These were men who had 30 to 40 years of experience in their field.  They had been teaching longer than I was alive and they were hosting me as an equal.

Now, I didn’t go into these discussions alone.  I was there with a couple of other colleagues, but none of us had the same experience they did.  We were there to start building a relationship, to learn how they trained things, and, most importantly, to learn something about their systems.

In the early days of the program, getting technical information from our Russian counterparts was notoriously difficult.  There was a lot of ingrained mistrust between the United States and Russia that needed to be overcome.  To overcome that, we had to get beyond stereotypes, language barriers, and cultural differences in order to do the job we needed to do.  It also helped to share a shot of vodka on occasion as a celebration of a day’s hard work.

Over the years, the relationships at the working level have improved greatly.  As we show that we’re willing to listen and discuss and not just posture and entrench, we’ve made progress.  Over that time, GCTC has also changed from a government institution to a privately run organization.

This change has also been accompanied by some military retirements and a wave of new, younger engineers on the Russian side. These younger engineers don’t carry the same ingrained mistrusts as their older compatriots do and as a result, the ability to collaborate with them has improved.

Just a couple of years after this first meeting, I was put in a leadership position on a project that required us to review detailed training requirements for all space station systems: electrical, computer, guidance, thermal, life support, communications, etc.  The intent of the project was to eliminate as much unnecessary training content as possible.  Essentially, we had to identify where we were being inefficient or rather, where their training was wrong.

We were told by many of our US coworkers, that we would never be successful, that the Europeans and Japanese had invested too much into their training to make changes, and that the Russians just wouldn’t do it.

So we gathered our first meeting, with several of us from NASA, a couple of Germans representing ESA, a couple of Japanese representatives, and a handful of Russians.

Communication was our first concern.  English and Russian are the two languages used by the program.  The Germans spoke eloquent British English and spoke with a mastery of the language that many Americans don’t have.  The Japanese had been small players in the program to this point and hadn’t had as much language training.  Communication between us was challenging.  We and the Russians had members with varying levels of understanding of each of our languages, but we would be supported by interpreters to assist there.

If you’ve ever had experience with interpretation, you know that words and terms in different languages don’t always mean the same thing.  Misunderstandings develop easily.  We had to spend some time in each meeting just coming to agreement on the definitions of certain words and picking the specific words we would use to describe things, just so we could learn to talk to each other.

The Japanese were at a greater disadvantage.  They were expected to know English and they largely did it without interpretation.  Culturally, they also had an ingrained tendency to nod yes.  To many of us that gesture meant ‘they understood and agreed’, when to them, it meant ‘they heard us’.  Extra time had to be taken to make sure that our counterparts there not only heard us but also understood.

Eventually though, we’ve been able to move beyond language and cultural barriers and have completed one of the most challenging engineering projects in history.  In so doing, we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way of how to communicate and work together.  My hope is that this will not be the last opportunity for us to do this.

For future exploration missions, I hope we can not only work with our friends at ESA, JAXA, CSA, and RSA, but also with other space agencies around the globe.  It will make things take longer and will ultimately make the project more expensive, but it would be something people around the world could take pride in.

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts

Not just twiddling our thumbs: What the training community does during a joint Shuttle-ISS mission.

International Space Station Post 19A

When the Space Shuttle launches on a mission to ISS, it represents the culmination of a year or so of hard work from the teams of instructors that have trained the astronauts and flight controllers to safely execute the mission. There’s a separate team responsible for training each vehicle. The training leads and instructors on those teams have spent hour after hour with each member of the crew reviewing the tasks to be performed, practicing those tasks, and trying to make sure the crew is prepared for any contingency that may occur. Likewise, they have worked with their flight controller counterparts, making sure that the ground team can handle any situation thrown at them, that they understand the priorities of the mission, and that they understand everything that needs to be done in order for the mission to be a success.

Just because the shuttle launches, that doesn’t mean the job ends.  At a minimum, the training team will spend the time observing how the actual mission unfolds.  In training, we often wind up simulating or training equipment that has never been used or operated in the real world.  We base our training on the best understanding we have of how that equipment or component will work based on studying hardware and software manuals or observing testing of the new component.  That means that when a piece of equipment is turned on for the first time in a mission, it’ll be the first time everyone, from the ground team to the crew to the instructor team, sees how it works in the real world.  So during the mission, we watch and we learn.

We’re also watching to see how well the crew and flight controllers handle all the mission activities.  We want to know if we prepared the crew and flight control team for everything we should have.  Was there anything we should have done better?  Or was there anything different we should have focused on?  Was there anything unforeseen that we need to make sure is covered in future missions.  Yes, we’ll talk with crews afterwards to get their feedback on this directly, but we don’t excel in our jobs without being proactive about finding ways to make the training better.

Beyond even that, we want to see what problems the crew or flight control teams experience during the mission.  We want to see how they handle the problem and we will file that problem away for potential future use.  We constantly try to predict what types of problems or malfunctions will cause the most amount of trouble for the mission.  We want to make sure everyone involved can handle those worst case scenarios.  Despite our constant poking and prodding of any potential weaknesses, the real vehicle always comes up with new and inventive ways to challenge everyone involved in operations.  We learn from those real world malfunction scenarios, get ideas from those, and then use hem in the future when training for the next mission.

Besides observation, the training team does support the mission in other ways.  If a complex problem does occur, the training team will try to recreate the problem in one of our simulators.  We’ll try to replicate the conditions on the real vehicles as exactly as possible, so that the flight control team can figure out a solution to the problem and keep the mission on track.  When it’s needed, the training team will work to have the simulator in the right configuration in a matter of hours.  During that time, the ground team will put together possible responses to a given issue.  Then, they’ll come in and practice their response.  We’ll potentially go over the next worse failure as well, so we can stress test the malfunction response.  Given how tightly scheduled all of our missions are, everyone needs to move quickly in order to make sure we get everything we need to done.

In addition to all of that, while the training for this mission has ended, training for the next missions is still ongoing.  At any given moment, there are some 30 astronauts in training for future space station missions, in addition to that training continues for the final shuttle flight, STS-135, as well as for upcoming Japanese and European cargo vehicle missions, and finally for the upcoming commercial cargo missions.  So while the shuttle mission unfolds before the world, there’s still plenty of work going on behind the scenes getting us ready for the next mission, and the one after that, and the one after that, and on and on.

Simulated: A Look Inside Spaceflight Training

He would soon regret not wearing his brown pants on this day.

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many *combat* drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.
Drake: S**t.
Hudson: Oh, man…

via IMDB

In Aliens, James Cameron excellently framed the ability of Lieutenant Gorman to lead his Colonial Marines into combat through this exchange on training.  The inference is clear, ‘simulated’ is not as good as the real thing.  ‘Simulated’ doesn’t really prepare you to lead your troops into combat.  No one will ever argue that simulations are a true substitute for real world experience, but for spaceflight training, simulations represent the most practical way for NASA and other space agencies around the globe to prepare astronauts and flight controllers for the risks of human spaceflight.

NASA runs simulations almost daily for several different reasons:

  1. To see if new personnel have the knowledge, ability, and mettle to be flight controllers,
  2. To practice for a specific mission and ensure everyone on the team knows their roles and responsibilities,
  3. To make sure the activities for a given mission day are practical or sequenced appropriately,
  4. To ensure everyone involved is ready for the worst case scenario.

Why do we need to do all this in simulations?  That’s a pretty straightforward answer.  We simulate something because it’s either too expensive, too risky, or not practical to train on-the-job while in space.  You don’t want the first time you learn how to respond to a fire on-board the International Space Station to be the first time you ever practice how to put out that fire.  You don’t want the first time you figure out what to do when a Space Shuttle main engine fails to be during launch when one of the main engines fail.  You want to know what to do in those situations as innately as possible so that instead of thinking about what to do, you are reacting and doing what you need to do.  It’s the same reason that sports teams practice plays again and again, you want to develop muscle memory, instinct, and quick reactions in order to best handle the moment.

We also don’t want to find out in the middle of a serious failure on-board the ISS or Shuttle that a flight controller can’t handle the stress and makes poor decisions under pressure.  When that moment happens, the existence of the vehicle could be threatened, the continuation of a program, and most importantly, lives could be on the line.  You have to succeed, you have to remain focused, and you have to be able to do the right thing.  So we practice, we practice, and we practice some more.

Just what is a simulation?  In many ways, it can feel like a giant video game.  NASA uses highly detailed and complex computer models to create a simulation of the real ISS or Shuttle.  The simulator model has to behave appropriately in every way possible: it needs to follow the laws of physics as it travels through a virtual Earth orbit, its components such as air conditioners, smoke detectors, etc., must behave as they do on the real vehicle, its virtual atmosphere must behave like the real thing (e.g. heating up when heaters are on, carbon dioxide levels rising due to crewmembers breathing etc.), it needs to give you a visual representation of what you’re supposed to be seeing (e.g. when do you see the runway during shuttle landing), and it needs to let you know what you should hear or feel in a given activity.

Now, it’s not practical or cost-effective for us to fully simulate everything to this level of detail.  So we have to prioritize the things that we think really need to be as lifelike as possible.  If something could threaten the life of the crew or the existence of the vehicle, we put a high priority on recreating that and practicing how to respond to those situations.  We also need to simulate enough of the vehicle to give the flight control team a plausible feeling of reality.

One of the cardinal rules of simulations is that you do not acknowledge that you are ‘only’ in a simulation.  That gives the impression that you are not behaving as you would in the real world and are not taking it as seriously as you should or would in real life and as such aren’t responding with the appropriate urgency.  The onus is on the trainer to create as immersive an environment as possible.

One of our challenges in training is to create the most realistic representation of the vehicle.  For every piece of equipment added, NASA has to decide how do you train it.  Is it important enough that we need an exact replica on the ground?  Or is it okay to have something that just looks like that piece of equipment?  Or do I need even need that and I can just get away with a picture of the thing?

One thing we absolutely cannot simulate is the microgravity environment astronauts experience in low Earth orbit.  We try our best in spacewalk training through the use of a large pool i the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, but we have no way of truly reflecting that feeling of weightlessness, at least not until some fundamental breakthroughs that lead us into a capability only found in science fiction.

That doesn’t stop us from creating real stress in our flight controllers or crew in their training.  Hopefully, when all is said and done, they’ll recognize, unlike Lieutenant Gorman, when it’s necessary to pull their team out because they’re about to get slaughtered by some ruthless xenomorphs (aliens*).

*-This should not be taken literally and does not mean that we train astronauts how to deal with alien encounters.