by Terry Burlison
Astronauts get all the glory: interviews, their pictures in the paper, the starry-eyed space groupies, those cool flight suits.
Mission controllers, however, rarely get mentioned—at least not positively. (Internet joke: “You might be a nerd . . . if you think the heroes of Apollo 13 were the mission controllers.” <rim shot>)
I’m here to set the record straight.
(NOTE: Since my quoted sources are still badged employees, they were unable to speak on the record. Thus, names are withheld to protect the somewhat innocent.)
When people ask my occupation, my past Mission Control experience somehow seems to creep into the conversation:
“What do you do for a living?”
“Well, I’m a writer, but I used to fly space shuttles out of Mission Control.”
Sometimes this does not get the reaction I’d like. Once, on vacation, I asked a waitress how a particular dish was prepared. She explained it, then asked what I did for living. “I work in Mission Control in Houston,” I replied with a modest grin. “Oh,” she said, clearly disappointed. “I thought maybe you were a cook.” My girlfriend laughed all the way back to our hotel.
Well, for those of you who do wonder, here’s what it’s like to work in the Big Room.
Flight Dynamics, call sign “Fido”
After college, I had the privilege of beginning my career in aerospace engineering at the top: as a NASA mission controller for the space shuttle. Not just any controller, either. Flight dynamics officers, call sign Fido, are the studs of Mission Control. (That’s fact, not opinion. Just ask any former Fido.)
Fidos are responsible for everything about the spacecraft’s trajectory from the moment it clears the tower on liftoff until landing. Sure, there are environmental guys, payload guys, avionics guys, etc. (and truth be told, they are the ones who usually handle problems during a mission, since it is their systems that usually break down), but Fidos—baby, we’re the ones that command the fire!
So for now, forget everything the media has told you about the astronauts. Forget Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13 single-handedly figuring out how to power up the dead Command Module. Don’t believe Al Bean “knowing” which switch to throw to save Apollo 12. Ignore Jim Lovell taking command of the Apollo 13 emergency while the mission controllers stared in disbelief at their consoles.
Beyond issues of personal hygiene, and, these days of course, payload experiments, astronauts do little without permission from the guys on the ground.
Houston, We Have A Control Center
Before I virtually sit you in the Fido’s seat, a little history is in order.
In the early 1960s, NASA was rapidly expanding its facilities, gearing up for the growing manned space program and needed a new center to control those missions. There was, of course, only one logical place for such a facility: Cape Canaveral, Florida. That’s where the rockets launched, that’s where the early control center was located, and that’s where the astronauts did most of their training.
So the new Manned Spacecraft Center was built a thousand miles away in Houston, Texas.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan, was vice-president at the time. Back then, political considerations often took precedence over common sense (unlike today, of course). LBJ knew the community that landed the Manned Spacecraft Center would reap huge financial and publicity benefits, so he struck a deal with Rice University to lease several hundred acres of cow pastures near Clear Lake, Texas for one hundred dollars for one hundred years. And on that site, the government erected the Manned Spacecraft Center, known within acronym-laden NASA as MSC.
Actually, the Space Center is located 25 miles southeast of Houston, about half-way to Galveston. Take out a Texas map, one that shows cities as yellow blobs. You will see the great mass of Houston looming like a gigantic mustard stain in southeastern Texas. Extending down I-45 for 25 miles from that stain will be a long, slender yellow tentacle that lunges eastward and encompasses the Space Center, like a political amoebae engulfing a tax windfall.
So, yes, technically the Center is in Houston.
In 1974, the Manned Spacecraft Center was renamed the Lyndon Baines Johnson Space Center (changing the acronym to “JSC”). The Center itself is mostly a cluster of low, high-tech, concrete-and-glass buildings resting in a nice campus-like setting. Connecting sidewalks meander across manicured lawns and around small reflecting pools.
The personnel in the Center primarily work in one of several Directorates. The most important Directorate, indeed, JSC’s raison d’être, is the Flight Operations Directorate (FOD). In my day, FOD included the astronauts and, of course, the mission controllers. (The astronauts were later exiled to their own Flight Crew Operations Directorate, but have now returned to the FOD fold.)
Each building at JSC is numbered. In the early 80s, most of the flight ops people worked in Building 4, as they had for years. A couple hundred yards north of Building 4 sat a building with a Jeckyll-and-Hyde appearance: Building 30, home of the Mission Control Center. One half of Building 30 was a typical JSC office building: concrete-and-glass, low and sleek. The other half, attached by a low breezeway, was a large concrete cube with no windows whatsoever, its blank concrete walls utterly devoid of any device or emblem.
This was the Mission Control Center. The heart of NASA manned flight operations. (Since my tenure ended, JSC has added a new wing, and re-designated the buildings to 30A (offices), 30M for the original MCC (pictured below), and 30S (the new ISS control center.)
The MCC is a three-story building (not that you can tell from outside). At the start of my tenure, the first floor was mostly support equipment, including the “brain” of manned space flight, the Mission Operations Computer (“MOC”), three IBM 370 computers with a tiny fraction of the computing power of a modern cell phone. Those babies sported 8MB of memory and still used magnetic tape drives for some mass storage. (For my article on the history of the MOC, click here.)
The upper two floors of the MCC were virtually identical: a large square room in the middle surrounded by a corridor with smaller support rooms around the outer perimeter. If the ground floor was the brain of a mission, this center room was the heart: the Mission Operations Control Room, or MOCR.
TV reporters always referred to the MOCR as “Mission Control.” Perhaps they thought the acronym MOCR—which rhymes with “ochre”—was too uncouth. Some years ago, JSC changed the name of the MOCR to the Flight Control Room, pronounced “ficker.” To no one’s surprise, the media still calls it “Mission Control.”
(This change was discussed when I worked there in the early 80s. Every time our manager would say “Ficker,” one of the women in our group giggled. Finally, he said, “If I can say it without laughing, you can hear it without laughing.”)
I never got a definitive answer why there were two identical floors, with two identical MOCRs. Some said it was so the third floor MOCR could be configured for Apollo while Gemini was being flown from floor two; others said it was to have a backup; still others, with a wary glance over their shoulders, whispered about future “classified missions.”
Certainly, during the early days of the shuttle program the Air Force did intend to use the third floor MOCR for Department of Defense shuttle missions. As far as I could tell, the extent of the classified preparations was to station some poor enlisted man at a tiny desk just outside the third floor elevator doors where he could glare suspiciously at us when we visited the vending machines. (Eventually, of course, the shuttle did fly classified missions, and I’m told by a former Fido: “By the time classified support actually began, the security level was considerably greater . . . card readers and magnetically locked doors and secure safes and CCTV monitoring and stuff like that.”)
When I originally stepped into the MOCR, the first thing I noticed was its small size. Perhaps due to the wide-angle cameras used for telecasts, I expected something large, perhaps even cavernous. In reality, the MOCR is about sixty feet wide and maybe forty feet long. About four times the size of a typical living room.
The second thing I noticed was the light—or rather, the lack of it. The MOCR was dark. The lights are on rheostatic switches. During missions or simulations (“sims”), they were kept at a bare minimum. This made it easier to see data on the console displays, which are rather like 1960s black-and-white TVs, only smaller and with fuzzier pictures.
During one of our simulations, the illumination issue demonstrated for me the power of the Fidos. I entered the MOCR with my boss, Jay Greene, who was the on-console Fido when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The room seemed no brighter than usual to me, but Jay walked over to the console and turned the lights down even more.
A voice from the back of the room wailed, “Goddammit, Jay, can we turn up the lights? I know you Fidos stare at a screen all day, but some of us have to read and write, you know!” Jay turned toward his assailant, gave his Brooklyn grin, then nudged the lights down a bit further. No one spoke again, and the lights stayed down.
I realized Flight Dynamics was the place for me.
(A colleague of mine informs me things changed in the post-Burlison years: “I remember the low lights, too. Some time later—not sure when exactly but it was before Challenger— the light level went up a bunch, and I hated it. I lobbied up the chain to get it turned down again, and after being a pest for a few weeks, got slapped back by PAO (Public Affairs Office) and some others that preferred the brighter settings. If I recall correctly, PAO’s objection had to do with the public TV feed cameras; I assume they must have replaced the cameras with ones that didn’t work as well in low light. Anyway, I lost that battle . . . wasn’t worth any silver bullets and I wasn’t getting any support for it. But the place wasn’t as cool, by any stretch.”)
The front wall of the MOCR was dominated by giant view screens. The center screen measured ten feet high by twenty across, and was called the “ten-by-twenty.” (No one ever accused us of originality.) On either side of it, and canted inward slightly, were two pair of ten-feet-square screens called “eidophors.”
Facing these five screens were four rows of two-tone green consoles, about four or five consoles to a row. The front row sat at floor level; each row behind it was tiered upward, a bit like a movie theater.
Behind the last row of consoles, a glass-enclosed viewing area overlooked the entire MOCR. This was the “VIP” area where presumably-important people sat during missions and pretended to understand what was going on.
The closer you sat to the glass wall, the less real work you did. The back row of consoles was pretty much reserved for NASA brass, such as the head of JSC and the head of Flight Operations. These people generally had little direct interaction with the flight controllers during a mission. In fact, many of us felt that the glass wall behind them could be moved about eight feet forward.
At the center of the next row sat the Flight Director. This position was well-named: he was responsible for the mission. Every decision, every interaction with the crew or vehicle was (and is) done with his explicit or tacit approval. The mission belongs to him (or nowadays, finally, “her”).
During a flight, mission operations goes on 24/7, rain, shine, or hurricane, so the Control Center is staffed by three rotating teams, each with its own flight director. Traditionally, each flight director had a color. Chuck Lewis was my flight director, and we were the Bronze team. The other two teams for STS-1 were Silver and Crimson. I don’t know if they carry on that tradition; if so, I can imagine a current Fido trying to impress some woman at a bar, “Yeah, sweetheart, I’m on the Puce team!”
Flight directors are literally at the center of the action in the control room. They must pull together information from more than a dozen flight controllers, figure out procedures in real-time, and decide what to tell the crew and when. They are the brightest, best trained, most knowledgeable people in the space program, apart from the astronauts themselves. At a party one night, I saw one of them walk into a closed sliding glass door.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the flight director never talks directly to the crew during a mission. I don’t care how many movies you’ve seen to the contrary, it doesn’t happen.
Except for payloads people, directing the astronauts as they perform experiments, the only person who talks directly to the crew during a mission, particularly ascent and entry, is the CAPCOM, which stands for “capsule communicator”—a name left over from the old days. (Actually, there is one other exception I’ll mention shortly.) The CAPCOM sits to the Flight Director’s right. This person is always an astronaut. A fellow astronaut knows what the crew is likely to be doing or thinking, how they are likely to react to instructions or situations. They are the perfect interface between mission control and the crew.
The second row from the front included people who actually work for a living. These included controls with such names as EGIL (Electrical Generation and Illumination), EECOM (Electrical, Environmental, and Communications), and GN&C (Guidance, Navigation, and Control). At the far left of the row sat the Flight Surgeon. In my day, this is the only person (except for the CAPCOM and the occasional president) who talked to the crew during flight.
NASA has always been extremely sensitive to any crew medical problems getting into the press. In the early days of the space program, if an astronaut had a medical issue, the surgeon would get on the air-to-ground communication loop and discuss it. Keen-eyed reporters, always lurking around for the next big scoop, would notice this and soon the knowledge that Astronaut A was suffering from the zero-gee trots would be in danger of escaping into the population at large.
To remedy this, NASA gave the surgeon his own private loop with which to speak to the crew. None of the rest of the mission controllers can even monitor it. Regular medical briefings were also scheduled so that discussions between the surgeon and the crew became commonplace.
The night before the launch of STS-1, the first shuttle mission, I discovered the surgeon served another, unsuspected service.
We were all sitting at our consoles and our flight director said, “Tomorrow’s a big day. If you think you might have trouble sleeping tonight, talk to the Surgeon—he has things that can help. If taking those things might cause you trouble waking up, talk to the surgeon—he has things that can help. If tomorrow you find yourself nodding off on-console, talk to the surgeon—he has things that can help.”
I figured if I asked the surgeon for something, he would open up his console and I would find it had no electronics in it at all, that his displays were nothing but stickers like on fake televisions in furniture stores. Inside his console, I suspected, I would find nothing but rows and rows of bennies, ‘ludes, reds, and such.
The front row of consoles included the “Trench”—Fido, Trajectory (or Retrofire), and Guidance, and was where the real work got done. And dead center, front row, sat the Fidos (and their co-pilots, the trajectory officers). To our right sat the guidance officer (call sign, imaginatively, “Guidance”) and to his right the data processing systems officer, or “DPS,” who was not part of the mythical Trench. (They insisted this be pronounced “dee-pee-ess,” so invariably we referred to them as “Dips.”)
The Fidos required more displays than could fit in our console space, so two additional displays were brought in and stuffed to our left, nearly blocking passage through our row. These displays looked like big black-and-white TVs. Hidden behind them sat the loneliest man in the MCC: the ground controller officer. One of the GC’s jobs was to keep the big projection display at the front of the room up and running. The projectors for this display sat in a big, dark open space behind the screens. The GC may as well have sat back there as at the end of the Trench, buried behind the Fido’s extra displays—he would have been no more isolated from human companionship.
I always wondered how GC got a front-row seat. My guess is the person making up the seating chart thought that “Ground Controller” sounded really important. I always felt kind of sorry for the GC guys; during the entire time I worked there, I never spoke to one of them, nor heard any other Trench guy do so. I suspect there are still colonies of them living in the deserted MOCR; ex-GC folk, mutated from years of close exposure to the Fido’s giant cathode ray tubes, snacking off expired drugs from the surgeon’s old console. (In fairness, I’m told today that, “they were actually pretty good guys, fully capable of speech and walking upright. We could even train some of them to have a sense of humor.”)
All told, we were a dozen or so steely-eyed rocket scientists, working in a dark, cold, antiquated room, squinting at low-contrast TVs. This is the glory that is Mission Control.
A few years ago, JSC opened a new wing on Building 30 which houses the new Flight Control Room. The new FCR has sexier-looking blue consoles with networked workstations at each position. The room is not tiered, and the Trench is now much closer to the giant screens in front.
Now you get to sit in the big boys’ chair, but you need to understand the privilege you’re being accorded.
NASA has always been a hierarchical being, both organizationally and in terms of “coolness.” At the top of the pyramid sat the astronauts (as they do today). Below them were the Flight Directors. Next came the Fidos. (Some may argue this point, but since they aren’t Fidos, no one listens.)
The Fido position is split into two: the flight dynamics officer and, in the Apollo/Gemini days, the retrofire officer (“Retro”). For the space shuttle, the latter was renamed to trajectory officer, call sign—more originality here—“Trajectory.” In addition to the two huge monitors blocking our row, the Fido had his own console and display and the trajectory officer another console and display. They also shared another console and display between them. The Fidos also controlled what is displayed on the four ten-by-ten eidophors, as well as the ten-by-twenty screen in the front. Normally, the ten-by-twenty showed the shuttle’s groundtrack, but during critical mission phases the Fido ordered the screen split into two ten-by-ten halves.
Thus, the Fido/Trajectory Officers actually controlled three consoles and displays, two additional CRTs, plus all six ten-by-ten foot displays at the front of the room. Not to mention the lights. Who wants to continue that “big dog” argument now?
The consoles themselves were also state-of-the-art 1964 technology. We each wore a “Starset” headset; a plastic device the size of a pistol grip that clipped onto our belt and had a long wire leading to an earplug and tiny microphone. They also sported a very long, coiled phone cord that plugged into slots along the edge of the console that enabled us to walk around while plugged-in. To be heard, we pressed a white button on the “grip” or pressed a foot-pedal on the floor.
The heart of any console position was the communication system, or “comm loops.” A loop is a connection between two (or more) controllers. For example, a Fido may talk to his backroom people on the “SDP DYN 1” loop. Only people with access to that loop could talk or listen to those conversations. Some loops were talk/monitor; some were monitor only. For example, there were three loops from the ground to the shuttle, Air-to-Ground 1, Air-to-Ground 2, and Air-to-Ground UHF. Anyone could monitor them, but only the CAPCOM could talk on them (remember?). My console sported a 48-button grid of comm loops.
When making a call, a controller called the other person’s sign first, followed by their own, then waited for the response:
When the Flight Director was ready, he would respond: “Go, Fido.”
“That’s ‘D-P-S,’ Fido!”
And there was none of that “over-and-out” stuff. Trust me.
A flight controller needs two skills above all others, and you won’t learn them in college: The ability to listen to a half-dozen conversations at once, ignoring everything that doesn’t relate to you, and mastering turning on and off those pushbuttons.
Scenario: You need to talk to the Flight Director. You push his comm button, make your call, then press another button to change “hot” loops—the loop that can hear you. Unfortunately, you didn’t press it quite hard enough, so you are still “hot” on the FD loop, meaning everyone in the MCC is listening. Thinking you’re talking to your backroom buddy, you say, “Hey Eddie, has that rash cleared up yet?”
Another rule is to keep your calls on-subject.
The comm system was included in the “big upgrade” to the new control center, and a former trenchmate of mine was not impressed: “This brings up another aspect of the ‘upgrades’ that I hated. The keyset hardware, while ‘antiquated,’ was infinitely superior in every operational way to the crap that replaced it. The tactile feedback, button lighting, color coding, and flash rate were perfect for high-speed phase operations. So, naturally, it was replaced by colorless touchscreens with no tactile response and cadaver-like flash rate. These were apparently more reliable, cheaper to maintain, and ‘programmable’ (whoopdefuckingdoo). So instead of being able to simply rest one’s fingers on a few button faces, press them as rapidly as needed and know the press had ‘taken’ by the tactile feedback (and, if necessary, a very quick glance to observe the flashing), now we had to keep hands off until it was time to select a loop. Then you had to locate the non-color-coded loop ‘button,’ make sure your finger was in just the proper ‘hot spot,’ touch it just so, wait a seeming eternity and physically divert your eyes from your data to observe that your selection ‘took’ by the agonizingly-slow flash rate, and finally carry on your conversation. It didn’t matter how pathetic it was for the operator—it was cool-looking to the Star Trek geeks who developed the specs without talking to the operators, and it supposedly cut costs. I ragged it mercilessly when we finally got to do the evaluations (which was by design too late to change anything) and referred to it only as ‘better than cancer.’”
I had the chance to observe the STS-98 mission from one of the trench’s support rooms and saw the “upgrade” first-hand. And I couldn’t agree more.
Another piece of the comm loop jigsaw puzzle was the telephones. Yep, telephones. Each console had an honest-to-goodness telephone built in, complete with rotary dial right there on the console. (Readers under twenty-five should ask their parents the meaning of “rotary dial.” Be prepared to hear how easy you kids have it these days.) You might use this to call someone off-duty or to order a pizza. (Just kidding. Burritos, maybe.)
These phones also received calls. I was instructed early on never to answer the phone with, “NASA, Johnson Space Center, Mission Control, Fido speaking.” Apparently, news reporters were not above finding the console numbers and calling them in their quest for potential “scoops.”
So we spent a lot of time watching all those screens and managing our communications. Oddly enough, one thing we Fidos did not do was run a computer from our console. No such capability even existed. We were the “brains” of the outfit. Grunt work, like entering numbers into a computer, was performed by our backroom support people, who frankly did pretty much all our actual work for us.
For example, one of my primary tasks was to generate “block-data.” The shuttle had six emergency landing sites around the world. Usually, one or more of them was available on any given orbit. My job as trajectory officer was to pick the best site, based on weather and political considerations (“Don’t fly over Chinese airspace unless you have to!”), then have the computer figure out how the shuttle would de-orbit in order to safely land there. This data had to be generated for every orbit in the mission and was sent up to the crew in “blocks,” such as ten orbits’ worth at a time.
The block-data information would be used by the crew in case of an emergency, where they had to get down now and might be out of communication with the ground, for example in case of a fire or meteoroid puncture.
The process would go something like this:
Trajectory (punching up the Dynamics Support loop—SSP DYN 1): “Dynamics, Trajectory.”
Flight Director: “You’re on the wrong loop, Trajectory!”
Trajectory (pressing the SSP DYN 1 button more firmly and watching to make sure it starts blinking): “Dynamics, Trajectory.”
Dynamics (laughing): “Go, Trajectory.” (Backroom conversations are less formal than those between front room positions.)
“I need to run an M40 maneuver.”
“Guidance mode: PEG4-Deorbit. ‘H’ is sixty-five point eight three two. Theta is one-oh-niner point eight five oh. Prop is sixty-three thirty-three. C-one is one five eight oh eight, and C-two is negative sixty-three forty-five. Target TIG is thirty-eight colon thirty-three colon thirty-four. Delta-V and Delta-T overrides are zero.”
The Dynamics person enters this information into the MOC (using a terminal, presumably), the MOC churns and grunts for a while and if it doesn’t crash, the call comes:
“Your M40 is up on channel twenty-nine.”
I would then punch up channel twenty-nine on my grainy monitor and verify that the inputs went in correctly, that the outputs make sense, and then send that data on to another controller who would relay it to the shuttle. And how, in the early 1980s, did this mission-critical information get to the most sophisticated machine ever devised by Humankind?
By teletype. If the crew happened to be talking to Mission Control, I would listen carefully to the Air-to-Ground loop until I heard the tikka-tikka-tikka of the on-board teletype chattering away in the background, and know my work was done.
Our console displays, though black-and-white and grainy, could accommodate very small text, even graphics, after a fashion. The screens were small, about 12” diagonally, but this lack of size and resolution did not stop industrious designers from putting more data on them at a time than any mere mortal could possibly read. Another on-the-job skill is learning to decipher these masses of data, picking out the handful of critical information buried in the morass of numbers—numbers that change every second.
To get a printout of a display, the controller simply pressed the Hard Copy button for the appropriate screen. Somewhere in the bowels of the MCC, someone would make a copy of the display onto that gawdawful thermal paper like fax machines used to use. This smelly, slick, nearly unreadable sheet would then be rolled up, stuffed into a metal cylinder, and shoved into a “p-tube”: a pneumatic tube like drive-through banks use. Seriously. After pressing the button, the flight controller waited for anywhere from one to ten minutes until schwoop, clacka-clacka, thunk, the cylinder popped out and rolled into a bin near his feet. Grab the cylinder, pop out the display, drop it back in the return chute, and thwump, it was on its way back home.
(I hear the new FCR has laser printers at each console. They probably have push-button phones, too. Spoiled brats....)
Ready to Fly?
Now let’s see how you handle working in the Trench!
Preparing for a mission involves many training sessions called simulations. In these sims, the crew (astronauts) sit in big shuttle simulators, the mission controllers occupy their consoles (as do the backroom support people), and segments of a mission are flown using computers to simulate the data of a real flight. In the MCC, a sim is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, except for fewer neckties. The simulation supervison (“sim supe”) was generally a devious character of questionable lineage who would throw problems at us, typically at the worst possible time: engine failures, computer malfunctions, sensor problems, etc. Once you’ve survived many, many sims, you’re ready for the Big Day!
We’ve arrived hours before launch to verify day-of-flight winds, visibility, cloud-cover, etc. are all within flight limits. (Weather was a constant issue with shuttle flights.) We power up our consoles and watch the final preparations at the Launch Control Center at the Cape, making sure all our systems are ready for launch.
As the lift-off approaches, we commandeer the four ten-by-ten eidophors and tell the ground controller officer to split the big screen into two more ten-by-tens. We power off the two big displays blocking our aisle, and bring up the eleven displays we’ll be simultaneously monitoring during launch. Among the data we’ll monitor are graphical plots that tell us the shuttle’s position and velocity. These data come from three sources: S-band tracking (highly accurate ground-based radar), C-band tracking (less accurate ground radar), and telemetry (a stream of data from the shuttle, which includes where the shuttle thinks it is).
(True story: Moments before the launch of STS-1, we lost the Bermuda east coast S-band tracking station. This meant we might not be able to accurately track the vehicle until it made it to orbit. Flight rules called for the mission to be scrubbed. My boss, Fido Jay Greene, made the recommendation to go ahead and launch as long as he had C-band (skin) tracking radars available. And they did. It turned out that the TV coverage had co-opted the satellite that NASA used for relaying the tracking data. The announcers were too busy yakking to even notice the crisis.)
Finally the countdown, which may have started a few days ago, nears zero. The flight director polls the team:
And so on, through the front room positions.
Launch approaches. Our headsets are eerily quiet, no “ten-nine-eight-” countdown, just the occasional calls as milestones pass. Suddenly, our data comes alive! The shuttle’s main engines have ignited, and about five seconds later the big solid rocket boosters on the side of the shuttle’s external fuel tank erupt at “T minus zero.” None of us has a television feed (although that changed after the Challenger accident), and we stare at our screens as the single, quiet call, “Liftoff confirmed” comes over our headsets.
Now everything is changing at once. Numbers flicker on all those displays, and we see a set of yellow and red lines beginning to crawl up the ten-by-twenty’s displays, representing the shuttle’s position, velocity, flight path angle, etc. It’s really happening!
We hear an astronaut’s voice in our headset, “Tower clear,” and we are officially in control.
This is the Fido’s realm. During ascent, virtually all calls made in the control room (and relayed to the crew) are made by the Fido, and take precedence over virtually everything else. Most of these calls are to let the crew know what abort mode is available to them should something catastrophic happen, such as losing an engine.
Unseen by us, the shuttle rolls to orient itself (“Roll program”) for the orbit it needs and roars away. We watch the attitude numbers to verify they’re correct. Our gaze flickers over nearly a dozen displays, picking out the crucial bits of data such as attitude, thrust levels, flight path angle, acceleration, and more—skills honed over months or years of simulation practice.
After about two minutes, the two solid rocket boosters on the side have exhausted their propellant and drop off (“SRB sep”). The shuttle’s three main engines continue to burn, gulping propellant from the huge external tank attached to the shuttle’s belly.
The shuttle climbs out, gaining speed and altitude, and we watch our plots as the vehicle reaches various abort points—when the crew has different options should they lose an engine (or two). All of these abort calls are made by the Fido and are immediately relayed to the crew, as even a moment’s delay can be disastrous. (You can hear these calls on any recording of a shuttle launch.) As each moment arrives, we press our footpad and call out over the FD (Flight Director’s) comm loop:
“Two engine (Zaragosa)”: Should the shuttle lose an engine at this point, they could still make it across the Atlantic to an abort landing site, in this case Zaragosa, Spain. (There are others.) Initially, the abort mode is Return to Launch Site (RTLS), meaning if the shuttle were to lose an engine early in the ascent, they could turn around and actually fly back to the Cape. Now, however, they have enough speed, altitude, and distance to make it across the Atlantic (a safer abort). They are now in the “transatlantic abort” regime.
Over the next few minutes, as the shuttle blasts out of the earth’s atmosphere, gains speed, and heads into space, we make a series of abort mode calls:
“Negative return”: At this point, the shuttle is too far downrange to turn around and return to the launch site. Loss of an engine in the next few minutes would require landing at a site across the Atlantic.
“Press to ATO”: If the shuttle loses an engine at this point, they can perform an “Abort To Orbit” into a lower-than-planned orbit (105 nm instead of 200+ nm).
“Press to MECO”: They are now going fast enough that loss of one engine means they can still make their desired (“nominal”) orbit at Main Engine Cut Off.
“Single engine Zaragosa, 104”: Now the orbiter can make it across the Atlantic should it lose two engines, assuming the other engine is throttled at 104%.
“Single engine press, 104”: The orbiter can finally make it all the way into its nominal orbit, even if it loses two of the three main engines.
You can hear these calls on the Flight Director’s loop for the STS-114 flight (the return to flight mission after the STS-107 tragedy) here.
At this point, the orbiter flies on to its nominal orbit, and the OPS 3 (on-orbit) phase of the mission continues.
Almost all of the later shuttle flights were dedicated to building/supplying the International Space Station (ISS). Getting to the ISS (or another spacecraft already in orbit) is called rendezvous. Maneuvering the shuttle through the complex choreography of orbital mechanics requires many on-orbit burns, all of which are planned and, after execution, confirmed by the Fido by checking tracking data and telemetry (data sent down from the spacecraft) after the maneuver. Thus, on a rendezvous flight, practically everything that happens during the mission must be cleared by the Fido, since practically everything can impact the maneuver plan: all maneuvers (obviously), communication or lighting requirements, even the crew’s sleep and work schedules. On a rendezvous flight especially, the Fido (and his team) is “top dog.”
(For a detailed explanation of rendezvous and all the tasks the flight operations folk must master, read my two-part article here.)
Once the orbital mission is over, the crew must return safely to earth. And again, this is the Fido’s realm. We’ve confirmed the landing site meets wind, visibility, and other requirements, and your backroom support team has run the deorbit solution for us, which we verified and had uplinked to the crew. The shuttle maneuvers to its burn attitude, executes the de-orbit burn, and is now on a one-way, hour-long freefall into the earth’s atmosphere, where it will execute a series of long banking maneuvers to bleed off excess speed (without overheating) and arrive at the landing site with exactly the right amount of energy, i.e., speed and altitude.
As Fido, this is your responsibility, and once more, your eyes flick over all those displays, taking in huge amounts of graphical and numeric data. Should the shuttle somehow lose its onboard guidance capability, say from a bad estimate of its position, it’s up to you to manually guide the crew, by voice relay, though the complex set of pitch, roll, and yaw maneuvers (not to mention speedbrake and body-flap settings) to keep it on course! Not a task for the faint-of-heart, and one that thankfully was never required outside of simulations.
Finally, the shuttle reaches its landing site, turns around the Heading Alignment Circle (HAC) and descends to the runway. The speedbrake comes full open, the braking chutes deploy, and the wheels come to a stop.
Your job is finally over.
Time marches on, for better or worse (or both).
In the 1990s, NASA moved the flight operations into the new wing of Building 30. Gone were the venerable p-tubes, pushbuttons, and grainy black-and-white monitors. Gleaming new color consoles with networked workstations now faced huge, high-definition color screens. Functionally, little changed in the way the control center operated, but not everyone is enamored with the changes.
One of the self-described “aging, useless, Apollo-hugging clingers-to-the-past” offers: “I've always hated nearly everything about it...the flat floor layout, pictures on the walls, the planters at the back, the flat front wall, the front-side projection, and the stupid ‘Mission Control Center’ logo over the center screen. It's a room for [sissified] apron-wearing flight controllers IMHO.” He describes working in the new Trench is like sitting in the front row of an IMAX theater. But, of course, this old-timer doesn’t even have a Facebook account, so what do you expect?
People often ask, “What does it take to be a flight controller?” (When they aren’t asking me if I’m a cook.)
And I say, “Balance.”
Good grades, but not necessarily great. Outside interests. Confidence. In a critical situation, with no time and little information, the ability to make the right decision. A willingness to look beyond the confines of your job description, to see the big picture, to pursue knowledge until you understand a system, a problem, or a requirement thoroughly. And, honestly, a certain amount of ego.
It also requires a willingness to live in Houston, amid the flatness, the humidity, the suffocating heat, as well as fire ants, roaches, wasps, mosquitoes, snakes, line-dancers, and other vermin.
And dedication. Only one group exceeded the flight controllers in this category: the astronauts. I scoffed at them a bit at the beginning of this article, but they were the most intelligent, driven, fiercely knowledgeable group of people I have ever known. Sometimes, late at night I would stop by my office to pick up or drop off something; invariably, many of the lights were still burning up on the third floor.
And while the astronauts get all the glory—some of the time undeservedly, it is true—it is also they who don’t come home to their families when it all goes horribly wrong.
So it’s a hard job, a tedious job at times, when everything is going well. (One of my toughest tasks during STS-1, the historic first space shuttle mission, was staying awake.) Sometimes, the bureaucracy, politics, endless meetings, and egos can be tough to endure. But standing in the MOCR at the end of the mission, waving flags, applauding, knowing that you helped achieve something unprecedented, and that the whole world is celebrating along with us, is an experience beyond measure or price.
Even if you wear a tie instead of a space suit.
Copyright © 2014 by Terry Burlison
Terry Burlison worked in mission operations at Johnson Space Center in the early days of the space shuttle program. He trained as the first shuttle-era rendezvous Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO), defined the Phase B RTCC (Real Time Computer Complex) rendezvous requirements, and designed rendezvous displays for use in the Mission Control Center. After leaving NASA, he worked for Boeing Aerospace and as a private contractor, developing automated rendezvous techniques for low earth orbit. He finished his career as a private consultant for various companies looking to resupply the International Space Station, including Rocketplane-Kistler, winner of one of the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems) contracts in 2006 for ISS resupply. Terry is now a full-time writer, trying to get his articles and novels to rendezvous with his deadlines.You can follow Terry on Twitter at: @ExNASATerry, or post questions about this article on his blog here.