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.

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