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.

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F + 4 Days Furlough Report

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

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

furlough beard 4

Furlough beard – now with 100% less neck beard!

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

Duration of Furlough: 4 days

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

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Still poor.

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

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

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

Video games played: Injustice: Gods Among Us.

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

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

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

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

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

Song of the day: Never Go Hungry –  Hole

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

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

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

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F + 2 Days Furlough Report

F + 3 Days Furlough Report

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.

Advice on Interviewing for an Internal Promotion

Over the past two weeks, I’ve interviewed 9 candidates who’ve applied to become the lead of the Station Training Lead Group. This group is responsible for overseeing the completion of training for all of NASA’s human spaceflight missions related to ISS.  The group lead will be counted on to keep a team of high performing employees acting in concert with the overall goals of the Mission Operations Directorate while fostering the leadership and integration abilities of each one of those employees.   It is critical that I select someone who is going to lead this team in the right direction.

Each applicant I interviewed had more than 15 years of experience with NASA or its subcontractors.  Each applicant had strong backgrounds working  in human spaceflight and had major accomplishments on their resume.  I had first-hand experience working with some of the candidates; some, I didn’t know at all.  How do you separate those candidates?  Here’s what I looked for:

  • Did you do your homework?
Did you take the time to learn something about the organization?  Did you talk to anyone in the organization to find out what the perspective of the employees is?  Did you talk to any of our customers to find out anything about their perspective?  Show that you’ve taken the time to get a grasp on what our priorities are, what challenges the organization faces, what the outlook of the group is, and what we’ve been doing lately.  This is particularly imperative for someone coming from outside the organization.  I’m going to need someone who can step in right away and be a leader.  Doing this shows me that you’re proactive, that you’re truly interested in this organization, and that your putting effort into this.
  • Do you really want this position?
There comes a time for many employees when they feel like they’ve done their time and they are ready to be a leader in an organization.  There also comes a time when you grow tired of facing the same challenges day-in and day-out and you’re ready for something different.  I understand those feelings and have had them at different points in my career.  Just wanting to do something different or just wanting a chance at leadership doesn’t show me that you really want the position that I’m interviewing people to fill.  I have 9 candidates who want that promotion.  The reason you want the promotion is an important factor.  Do you care about our mission?  Do you care about the direction of the organization?  Our work is challenging, draining, frustrating, and constantly changing.  If you’re only in this for the title or the money or to do something different, then I’m going to look for someone who wants it more.
  • Have Vision
If you’re going to be a leader in this organization, then I want to know that you’ve thought about the direction the organization needs to go.  How can we be more effective?  How can we improve?  Is there something we should stop doing?  Is there something we should start doing?  Do you have some idea of where you’re going to lead this group?  What’s important to you?  What’s important to my boss?  Put some thought into it.  Be specific.  Give me two or three concrete things that show you’re going to come into this position and work with me to maintain or improve a world-class organization.  Your vision doesn’t need to match mine.  In fact, your vision may be better than mine.  If that happens, you will force me to consider you for this position.
  • Know Thyself

Even if you do all of the above, you need to be completely and brutally honest with me about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.  Know your strengths and weaknesses, tell me how you play up to your strengths, and tell me how you overcome your weaknesses.  Be honest about them.  If you’re not, I will find out about them when I talk to the people you’ve worked with for the last 15 years.  Sure, I will talk to your references, but I expect those people to be generally positive about you.  I’m also going to talk to people I know you’ve worked with.  I’ll talk to Flight Directors, other managers, co-workers, and anyone else I can find with an opinion.  If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you’re co-workers and former and current bosses will or at least they’ll have their opinion.  If that opinion is different than what you told me, then it becomes a case of your word against theirs and I have to wonder if you don’t see your shortcomings.  Having shortcomings is not a bad thing; not knowing how to deal with those shortcomings is.  Not being honest about them is a dealbreaker.

Doing these things won’t guarantee you a promotion, but it will put you in contention. If you don’t do these things, then I will find someone who will.

The Rhetoric on the NASA Budget

This week, the White House unveiled its fiscal year 2013 budget request for NASA and as soon as that happened, the hand-wringing about NASA’s budget began. In order to decipher the conversation that surrounds the request and the debate to come, we need to briefly look at how NASA is currently constructed and the missions it supports.

NASA is composed of 10 centers, five involved in human spaceflight (Johnson, Kennedy, Stennis, Goddard, Marshall), five involved in research (JPL, Ames, Dryden, Glenn, Langley), NASA headquarters, and roughly half a dozen other facilities. Each center has a different function or specialty which support NASA’s missions of human space exploration, robotic space exploration, planetary sciences, Earth sciences, and aeronautics. In the map above, you can see that those centers are spread across the country. Geography is the first factor that drives the initial rhetoric regarding the budget.

The day after the budget was released, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) released a statement saying:

“I am pleased the President requested $830 million for Commercial Crew programs, which is America’s single most important near-term civil space project. But cutting the Technology budget while increasing the Earth Science budget – a function that doesn’t even belong in a space exploration agency – and continuing to shovel resources into the SLS money pit is a travesty.

“Any more of this kind of “leadership” and soon NASA’s entire budget will be consumed by JWST and the SLS, two things that won’t have made it off the launch pad ten years from now.”

So what’s behind this statement? Well, SpaceX and Blue Origin, two prominent commercial space partners, are both headquartered in California. In addition, two Mars’ robotics programs that are now at risk would be developed and run out of JPL and Ames, also in California.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) released this statement:

“As I told the Administrator during our meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration.”

Rare to see bi-partisan support of anything these days. Then, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) chimed in with this reaction:

“Despite repeated assurances from NASA and White House officials that the SLS and Orion are ‘key elements of our future strategy for human space exploration’, vehicle development for the heavy lift SLS rocket and the Orion capsule is cut by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Given that JSC is one of the centers that will most benefit from the development and operation of SLS, these comments should not come as a surprise. The bottom line for each of these representatives is that a reduction in funding to a NASA mission supported by their local centers means a potential loss of jobs at each of those centers. Again, less budget means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means that constituents in the districts that they support will be out of work.

Having the conversation center around the benefits of one aspect of NASA’s mission vs. another aspect of that mission will not advance the conversation very far. It causes internal strife in an organization that can’t afford to have that. Missions will always need to be appropriately vetted to ensure we are pursuing worthwhile scientific or technological goals. The reality is there are benefits to be gained from all aspects of the agency’s current missions. At this point, funding is being spread so thin across programs in a way that jeopardizes the long term success of several programs. To best accomplish NASA’s mission of exploring the solar system will require a combination of human and robotic exploration supported by satellite or telescopic observation. Each one of these areas of research provides different benefits. Someone who tells you we should only do one or the other of these things is likely not seeing the entire picture.

Satellite observation provides invaluable insight into the varied worlds around us. Satellites like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can help map a planet, identify where water once flowed, and point robotic exploration missions to areas of high value. They can peer far into the surface of these worlds giving us insights we would have otherwise never had.

Robotic missions can then go to the surface and help us understand the environment where humans will eventually tread. Robotic explorers can go where it is too dangerous to send humans. They can also explore for long periods without the need for refueling or replenishment. Eventually, those robotic explorers will fail and cease operation.

Enter the human explorer who can change a research target at a moment’s notice, conduct research and exploration without needing someone on Earth to command him or her to do so, and can repair instruments or rovers that break. In addition, as we explore the solar system, we learn more and more about ourselves. Space exploration tests the limits of human endurance and requires continued advances in so many areas.

To do human exploration, we need a US vehicle capable of reaching orbit, low Earth or otherwise. The commercial crew providers show promise but are by no means guaranteed success. As people are now finding out, the commercial providers face the same technological and budgetary challenges that NASA has faced for decades. Several are turning to NASA to provide tried and true expertise for operating their spacecraft. Just as it has always been, the future of human spaceflight will be a public-private partnership.

The real question shouldn’t be should we do robotics vs. human exploration or commercial vs. NASA, it should be are we as a country spending enough on scientific research and development. NASA’s total budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion. This represents .48% of the federal budget or less than half a cent from your tax dollar. This is the lowest percentage of the federal budget that NASA has received since 1960. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the NASA budget is comparable to the Department of Defense Budget. The DoD budget request for 2013 stands at $525 billion dollars or 30 times the NASA budget. By point of comparison, in NASA’s entire history from 1958 to 2012, the US has given NASA $543 billion dollars (non-adjusted) or $18 billion more than the DoD’s request for next year. Staggering.

At one point, I was a doubter of MPCV and SLS, believing the rhetoric that had spewed forth of it just being a pork program. That was before I talked to people hard at work on that program, people who are working as hard as they can to get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible, so that we can resume human exploration of the solar system. Without MPCV and SLS, NASA would not have any budget for human exploration and who knows if we would ever get that back. Now, MPCV is on track for a test flight in 2014 and SLS is slated for its first test in 2015 and a longer test flight in 2017. If funding is maintained, those dates will be here sooner than you think.

Couple that with the continued development of commercial crew services, which some companies are still on track to provide by 2016, and the US would have a fully operational human exploration program with access to low Earth orbit and beyond in 4-5 years. Robotic precursor missions would have already paved the way and suddenly, we would have the capability to do the things we’ve always dreamed.

Isn’t that worth paying for?

Quick addendum: I’m not trying to suggest that the government should give NASA whatever it wants unchecked. Accountability is absolutely needed and funds for research should also be used in other areas of scientific, technological, or medical research. I am suggesting we ought to consider our national priorities of where to invest taxpayer money and perhaps alter the balance of things.

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.