Astronauts get the glory, but flight directors run the show.
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 3 of 5)
So it was with an emergency on the space station on Super Bowl Sunday, February 3, 2002. When a software glitch took down the station’s Russian-run computers shortly before midnight, there wasn’t much Bryan Lunney, the flight director on duty, could do but watch and wait. The Russian computers fed data to the station’s gyroscopes, which were essential for holding the station’s position stable. Two hours after the first computer failed, the backup system also crashed. “We’d seen similar things in the past,” says Lunney, whose father was the Apollo-era flight director Glynn Lunney. “It’s normally no big deal. But when the second computer failed, we started thinking about what to do if the third one failed too.”
Sure enough, the third computer also shut down. With data no longer being supplied by its gyroscopes, the ISS began a very slow tumble. Consequently, the huge solar arrays were no longer pointing at the sun. And without a steady supply of solar-derived electricity, the controllers knew things would get dark and cold pretty fast. “If the station runs out of power, that’s bad,” says Lunney. “There is no good way to jumpstart it.”
Not sure how long the computers would be down, and never having trained for a triple-computer failure, Lunney turned for help to his PHALCON (power generation, storage, and power distribution) flight controller, who offered a simple, almost primitive solution: Have the crew look out the window, find the sun, then manually rotate the arrays toward the light. “He came up with this procedure on the fly,” says Lunney. “It had never been done before.”
The PHALCON controller devised a crude table that divided the station into four viewing areas—deck, forward, overhead, and aft—with corresponding angles for each section. For example, if the sun was visible through the aft portal, the crew should tilt one solar array to 90 degrees and the other to 270. Because radio communications on the drifting station were also intermittent, mission control would have less than five minutes to read the instructions up to the astronauts. “We practiced reading it aloud a couple of times to see how long it took,” remembers Lunney. “I was nervous and the adrenalin was certainly flowing.” But the solar arrays eked out enough juice to keep the station powered up until the Russians finally got their computers back online. Visible relief swept through mission control. Says Lunney, “I felt like a fireman who’d walked out of a burning house having just rescued the kids from the bedroom.”
Although the improvised procedure worked, space engineers hate to wing it when astronauts’ lives and billions of dollars of hardware are at stake. That’s why flight directors are among the most systematically and thoroughly trained professionals in any field. “They are Spartans, tough and competent, like the Navy SEALs,” says Ron Dittemore, the now-retired flight director who was in the public spotlight as NASA’s shuttle program manager at the time of the Columbia accident.
It was Gene Kranz who first scribbled “tough and competent” on a mission control chalkboard after another disaster—the fire that killed Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during a ground test in 1967. Kranz demanded that flight directors write the words on the blackboards in their offices, never to be erased. That combat mentality—Kranz was a fighter pilot before joining NASA—engenders camaraderie and mutual loyalty that extend well beyond working hours. “We knew each other very personally as a family,” Kranz says of his time at the space agency. “We partied together. We had the largest party fund in all of the federal government. We would take over the Astrodome. It basically helped us maintain our bond.” Not much has changed. “Being a flight director is not a job but a lifestyle,” says Ridings. “You know everybody’s kids, wives, and husbands. People call you at two in the morning, or on vacation, it doesn’t matter. When you’re working a big mission, you get home after a shift and immediately turn on NASA TV. It’s addictive.”
It’s also demanding. The job is grueling mentally, and the nine-hour shifts go round the clock. Flight directors regularly have to adjust their sleep schedules. “Everyone has a really good set of blinds at home,” quips Dana Weigel, who was a flight controller for extravehicular activities (spacewalks) before she was promoted to flight director.
The key to success, Sarafin explains, is learning how to handle potentially debilitating stress. He describes a condition called “scope lock” that sets in when a frazzled flight director or controller gets too focused on the minutiae of a particular problem “and forgets that there is a spacecraft flying up there.” They lose sight of the big picture, hypnotized by the dizzying stream of data spewing from their consoles. “Others start to ramble when the pressure is on,” adds Sarafin. “Or they might just stop talking entirely.”