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.






A Serendipitous Encounter with a Space Shuttle Crew That Gave Me a Glimpse of My Future

Ah, Spring in Worcester, Massachusetts

The crew of Shuttle mission STS-73 visited Worcester Polytechnic Institute in early spring of 1996.  Unbeknownst to me, I shook the hand of my future that day and I mean that quite literally.  The STS-73 crew included the head of the WPI chemistry department, Al Sacco, as a payload specialist.  As a result, the crew’s debrief tour led them to this small engineering school in central Massachusetts.

At the time, I was a junior in college.  Along with another good friend of mine, I had just chronicled the STS-73 mission in a school publication, the Advanced Space Design Journal.  I already knew at that time, actually well before that time, that I wanted to pursue a career in space exploration.  I had no idea how I would go about that, where I would get started or what I even really wanted to do, I just knew that my future would follow that path.

I promise the smell of stale beer will wear off before we do ISS emergency training.

The commander of STS-73 was Ken Bowersox (pictured above, next to me in the Flyer’s jacket).  Ken Bowersox would later go on to be the Commander of the Expedition 6 Crew.  That just happened to be my final assignment as an International Space Station (ISS) Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) instructor.  In that role, I would be responsible for training Bowersox and the rest of the crew how to operate all of the life support equipment on ISS as well as how to respond to emergency situations like a cabin fire or leak.

Ken Bowersox is now a prominent member of the SpaceX team which is currently developing a new cargo and crew vehicle that may provide US access to low Earth orbit in the near future.  For this reason, I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of him in my career.

No, seriously, I'm going to be your training lead in 10 years.

Also on that flight, serving as a Mission Specialist, was astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria (in the blue suit above).  Lopez-Alegria would later be assigned as the Commander of ISS Expedition 14.  Coincidentally enough, Expedition 14 would be my first assignment as a Station Training Lead.  In that role, I was responsible for leading a team of instructors to ensure the crew was trained how to properly operate and live in the ISS and be ready for any contingency.

10 years later and as promised, I no longer smelled of stale beer.

The point of this story, you never know when you’re going to come face-to-face with your future.  Try to conduct yourself accordingly.  Also, wear a little more dignified, understated jacket when you’re posing for picture with astronauts.


Difficult Times

This post has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks, but I have struggled to move beyond it.  There’s a lot of room here to say the wrong thing, but at this point I just need to write this and get beyond it.

At the moment, the world is celebrating the final flight of the Space Shuttle, STS-135. At 5:56 am eastern time tomorrow, Shuttle Atlantis will roll to a stop on the runway at Kennedy Space Center and at that moment, the shuttle program will effectively end.  Thirty years of shuttle flights will draw to a close.  In that fleeting moment, the shuttle will capture the attention of the world.  Then minutes, hours, days, or weeks later, it will fade from the thoughts of many, if not most.

The challenge with space exploration is that it is not a necessity of life for the majority; there will always be more pressing concerns.  Whether it’s the debt ceiling, the federal budget, taxes, war, death, disease, or scandal, something will be pressed to the front of the collective consciousness of society.  Space exploration will be left to the die-hards and, frankly this is okay.

It has been argued that exploration is at the core of the human spirit, that to be complacent is to let that spirit die.  Exploration, in that sense, comes in many forms, be it scientific research or medical research, both of those push the boundary of human knowledge and thus can be deemed exploration. For some though, there is a need to focus outward.  Some argue that space exploration should be cancelled and those minds and resources should be moved to problems like healthcare or education.

I have always argued that space exploration is a healthy aspect of the government’s investment portfolio.  Space exploration is ultimately a study of both other worlds and ourselves.  We learn the limits of human endurance and of the body’s ability to endure harsh environments.  Those lessons then improve our every day life here on Earth while they help us expand into the Solar System. In order to ensure a bright future for its population, the government must invest in the areas deemed too risky for private industry, that it must continue to invest in the evolution of knowledge and technology, so that its spirit continues to grow.  This is why I lament the end of the Shuttle program, and more importantly, the loss of its supporting workforce and their collective experience.

Instead of continuing to evolve, to push ourselves, to explore new frontiers, we are now in a steady state, waiting for bold leadership to select a viable new direction and then waiting to see if someone will be willing to pay for the vision that is offered up.

Two years ago, my office included a group of twelve training leads for the Space Shuttle program.  These individuals were selected because of their talent, their leadership abilities, their work ethic, and their drive to do what they did.  In three weeks, that group will no longer exist.

The decades of experience the individuals in that office gained will be lost to NASA.  Some will join a few of the commercial companies now developing new space vehicles and for those few, the goal of transferring the government’s expertise in low Earth orbit spaceflight to private industry will be realized.  But most of that knowledge will simply be lost.  Careers and lives that have been dedicated to this cause are now stopping and shifting abruptly.

Years from now once a new vehicle is developed and a new mission is selected and funded, we will be in a position where we will need that expertise and we will not have it.  A common criticism I have seen leveled at NASA lately is why weren’t we able to easily recreate the successes of the Apollo program with modern technology.  After all, we did it before; it should be easy to do again in the digital age.  When a program is cancelled though, the workforce is let go, the infrastructure is dismantled, and data is lost.  Experience and knowledge walk out the door and it is irreplaceable.

If we are ever to truly expand the reach of humanity beyond Earth, we must take a smarter approach to space exploration.  Currently, the exploration goals of NASA are subject to the whims of the current administration.  In this partisan environment, one party’s vision is the other party’s trash.  So a Democrat must throw out the plans of a Republican and a Republican must throw out the plans of the Democrat.  So we shift with the administrations, scrambling to establish as concrete a foundation for a program as we can, in the hope that the next administration will see its value and we will be able to continue that work.

This approach will not lead to long-term success.

To explore, to establish a true human presence off of this planet, will take time and money.  We can’t look at plans that are four years down the road or even ten, we need a plan, a strategy, that takes us twenty, thirty, or even fifty years into the future.  We need a logical progression from one destination to the next, with the recognition that as one program retires, we carry the lessons learned and experience gained to the new program.  We need to naturally transition from program to program, not start, make progress, stop completely, and then restart.

The International Space Station, recently completed, has been in orbit for 10 years.  In another ten years, we could possibly decommission it.  How long will it take us to evolve from that?  Will it ever be replaced?  We should already be developing plans for its successor, for our next step in establishing a firm human presence in orbit.  In ten years, will I be decrying the loss of the ISS workforce as we continue on another startup program?

In a way, I don’t lament the end of the Shuttle program.  There is a reason people no longer drive around in Model-Ts or use Commodore 64s or listen to 8-tracks.  Technology progresses, new needs emerge, and we continue to evolve our capabilities. The shuttle program has completed 135 missions in 30 years.  It has assembled the most complex engineering challenge that humanity ever attempted.  It has contributed a staggering amount to the scientific knowledge of the human race. It has, in effect, completed its mission.

We could have continued to fly more shuttle missions year to year; however, it is time for us to move beyond low Earth orbit and continue our exploration of the stars.

Yet, we are not able to do that.  And by the time we are, the knowledge and experience of those who have contributed to the significant achievements of the shuttle program will be lost.  That is the tragedy here.

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.