Astronauts get the glory, but flight directors run the show.
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 2 of 5)
The engines fire and mission control falls silent. The exact positions of the shuttle and ISS are projected as a high-resolution graphic on a 10- by 12-foot overhead screen. Another large display plots the orbit of the shuttle and station onto a world map. A third screen relays telemetry data, caution messages, and emergency warnings from the shuttle and ISS to mission control. It’s only a simulation, but I’m transfixed by the realism, knowing that all hell is about to break loose. Suddenly, a yellow warning code indicates three separate temperature spikes in one of the avionics bays that house the shuttle’s flight control and computer systems. The EECOM (emergency, environmental, and consumable operations manager), pronounced "ee-com," calmly flips through her mission rulebook (“Our bible,” says Sarafin) to find the right protocol and determines—with the help of other flight controllers—that the spikes are caused by a small blockage in the water-cooling loop. Switching to a redundant cooling loop returns the temperatures to normal.
It’s this particular EECOM’s first simulation in the ficker front room, a significant milestone for a flight controller. She’s already endured hundreds of similar exercises in the “back room,” where junior flight controllers work in specialist teams, training on each system in year-long rotations like med school students alternating between the psych ward, gastroenterology, and pediatrics. So goes the arc of a career in mission control—back room to front room to flight director.
Shuttle simulations might last three or four days, and to get certified to work an actual launch and landing, a flight director may have completed hundreds of simulations before doing it for real. “They give you all these failures—to the point where it is almost unrealistic—to see how we’ll react,” says Ridings.
Still, even after hundreds of hours of practicing far-fetched disaster scenarios, real missions occasionally serve up surprises. One frequently cited by flight directors is the March 1992 STS-49 mission to rescue an Intelsat communications satellite stranded in an unusable orbit. The shuttle crew’s task was to attach a new rocket motor to the satellite that would boost it to the proper altitude. The original plan had been for a spacewalking astronaut at the end of the shuttle’s robot arm to snare the satellite with a special capture bar and bring it into the shuttle cargo bay. When that failed several times, the astronauts themselves proposed a workaround: Send out three spacewalkers, which had never been tried before, to grab the two-ton beast by hand and coax it into the bay.
It worked. But after the astronauts attached a booster rocket to the satellite and reentered the shuttle, another glitch occurred. When the crew flipped a pair of switches to activate a spring that would eject the satellite from the shuttle, nothing happened. “Now we’re sitting there with a satellite in our payload bay, with a rocket motor that might be getting ready to fire off,” recalls Phil Engelauf, who was a flight director for the mission.
Stumped by a potentially dangerous situation they’d never trained for, the ground controllers set to work. Engelauf remembers Jeff Hanley, then a mission control payload officer responsible for the vehicle’s cargo, poring over the shuttle’s wiring diagrams. “He was sitting in front of me with these long, fold-out drawings tracing through the entire system,” says Engelauf. Hanley had a hunch: The arming and firing circuits could have been wired backward. “Instead of arming the A circuit and firing the B circuit, Hanley wanted to arm the B circuit and fire the A circuit. So we read the instructions up to the crew and I remember you could cut the tension and suspense with a knife as we counted down…three…two…one…fire…
and sure enough, the satellite left the payload bay.”
Intuition like Hanley’s amounts to a sixth sense, says Gene Kranz, the legendary NASA flight director who handled mission control’s most famous “save” after an oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded on the way to the moon in 1970. “There’s a gut feeling, an almost intuitive response to things that are happening around you,” he says. “It’s like chess,” says former astronaut and NASA head of spaceflight Bill Readdy. “You have to always think several moves ahead.”