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.

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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.