A Moment in Time – Terranauts

Restoring Apollo Mission Control Center.. Credit: Space Center Houston.

In this episode of Terranauts we explore the world of NASA’s Mission Control Centre as it was in 1995.

At that time, Mission Control was still being performed out of the same building and the same control room as it had been since 1964 when control of manned spaceflight missions had moved from Cape Canaveral to the Manned Space Center in Houston.  This was the building from which NASA had gone to the Moon. Over the course of 30 years many of the details had changed, but a lot had also stayed the same.  But change was coming in the form of a new control centre, new technologies and new partnerships and ways of getting to, and staying in space. But today we will take a moment to see what the world of Mission Control looked like, when I spent my first working shift there in February 1995.

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Transcript of the A Moment in Time Episode

As I opened the door, I was greeted by a wave of warm wet air.  Like someone throwing a warm wet towel in my face.  This, of course, was entirely normal for Houston.  Even in the middle of winter, and even in the early pre-dawn morning. 

In short, it was like any other day during the time I spent working at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre.

Except it wasn’t.

Because on this day I was heading to the Johnson Space Center to do something that I had never done before. 

Something that, until a few months previously, I never thought I would do.

I was going to work at the Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center.

And not only in the building, but during a live space shuttle mission.

Hello, I’m Iain Christie and This Is Terranauts

In the last episode of Terranauts we followed the story of how NASA Mission Control came to be as an organisation like no other that had preceded it.

We talked a little about what preceded it and the forces that led to its creation

Today we are going to talk about what it was like to work there – well what it was like for the first 30 years of its existence.

Next time we are going to talk about what has been going on in the 25 years since then.

I want to start the discussion by talking about my personal experience of working in Mission control because, you see, I arrived in Mission Control at a very interesting moment in time. 

On that morning in February, 1995 I was going to  work in the same mission control building that had been in use since mission control had moved from Cape Canaveral to Houston for the first manned Gemini flight in June of 1964.

This was the building from which NASA had gone to the Moon.

This was the building from which the NASA flight control team had successfully fought to bring the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft home and land her crew safely back on Earth.

From this building NASA had inaugurated and continued to operate the Space Shuttle – the world’s first reusable spacecraft.

For over thirty years whenever an astronaut in space has started a transmission with the word “Houston”  this was who and what he meant.

But that was ending.  A brand new wing of the Mission Control building had been built and NASA was preparing to move out of the Gemini and Apollo era Mission Operations Control Rooms or MOCR’s in Building 30 (or 30N as it was now called) and into the new Flight Control Rooms of FCR’s in the brand new Building 30S. 

Within a few months of this, my first shift in MCC, the building 30N facilities would be taken out of use and returned to their configuration  from the Moon landings and preserved as a kind of museum –  from then on they would be visited only by tourists from Space Center Houston on guided tours.

But today,  the original MCC was still the heart of NASAs space operation and it was there that I was headed, that warm damp Houston morning.  I was, as usual, dressed in my NASA uniform of a collared golf shirt and Khaki pants.  If I had been working at NASA long enough the golf shirt would almost certainly have been one adorned with a crest from a previously worked mission.  But as this mission was my first, I was just a plain golf shirt. 

Around my neck hung a lanyard carrying my badges – a green site badge which marked me as a “foreign contractor” but still one with full access to the Johnson Space Center site.  That badge would get me on site, and would allow me to get into the building 30 lobby, but today I was also sporting   a second badge that would grant me access to the Mission Control centre facility itself.

I drove the short 15 minute drive to the Space Center from our apartment.  Instead of parking near my office in Building 4, I would have checked the parking lot near Building 30 to see if there might by chance be a parking spot that was less than a 5 minute hike from the building.  Doubtless I did not find one.

It would be a few missions yet before I learned that avoiding a hike in 100% humidity required reporting early in order to secure a parking spot in the inner lot.

On this day, I was actually coming in at the end of the shift change because I was not actually part of the flight control team.  My function in Mission Control that day was really just to begin to  familiarize myself with the functioning of MCC in preparation for the day when I would have an operational role on an upcoming flight.

By the time I started working real shifts in MCC, the transition to the new flight control centre was well underway so this was actually the only shift that I worked in the Apollo Mission Control Center.

And that’s why I say that I arrived at a very particular moment in the history of the Mission Control Center.  Because, you see, the new flight control facility was not just being built to give MCC a more modern facility – although heaven knows it needed it – it was also being designed to be the flight control facility for the International Space Station.  And the advent of the ISS would change a lot of things about the way that Mission control would be done.

For one thing, It would transition from discrete missions of limited duration to continuous permanent operations – a change which would have profound effects on how the job was done.  But it would also inaugurate an era in which other  facilities, in other countries, would participate directly in Mission Control activities. 

But those are topics I want to talk about next time.

For now I want to talk about the world of MCC as it was in February, 1995 and as it had been for the three decades prior to that.

Once through the security checkpoint in the lobby of bldg 30, I went upstairs to meet my NASA colleagues.  I did not go to the actual “Control Room” that you would have seen on TV. This room was known as the “front room”.  Instead I went to a room known as the “multi-purpose support room” or MPSR – known universally as the “back room.” 

This was the standard arrangement for Mission Control since the days of Gemini.  In the early days of Project Mercury there was really only one mission control room – all of the on-duty flight control team would have worked out of this one room.

As the complexity of the spacecraft and the missions began to increase, the system changed to allow an increase in the size of the flight control team.  To make the main control room manageable, the system developed whereby each front room controller had a support team located in a support room – still in MCC but separate from the front room.

The backroom would provide extra analysis and planning while the front room would continue to provide the advice directly to the flight director and to interact with the rest of the flight control team.

Adding the backrooms necessitated the expansion of the internal communications network within MCC.  The voice part of this network was provided by an intercom system known as “The loops.”

The physical part of this network would have been provided by the “P-Tube” system which was literally a network of – probably kms pneumatic tubes that ran around the building.  Small items – usually in the form of papers or documents were sent from one place to another in the building by placing them in a cylinder (about 5cm in diameter) and placing the cylinder in a the right tube and then triggering the system so that a wave of air pressure would take it to its destination where the cylinder would be removed from the tube and the message or document would be removed from the cylinder.

It is rumoured that it was this system that gave rise to the front row of the MOCR being called the trench because during busy times when messages were flying back and forth between front room and back room and between flight controllers and the flight director, the floor in front of the FIDO, RETRO and GUIDO positions became so littered with used cylinders that it reminded one of the flight controllers – a former marine – of an artillery position littered with spent shell casings.

For me the P-Tube system was really the stuff of legend though, by the time I worked in MCC, documents were being transferred electronically and the Ptube system was not implemented in the new control rooms.

The voice loops certainly were though, so upon arrival at MCC, the very first thing that I would have done – the first thing that any flight controller would do – was to plug into the loops.

This consisted of plugging a headset into the intercom control box and selecting which loops to listen to.  At the time that I worked in MCC there were literally hundreds of loops available.  Everyone was expected to listen in on the A/G loop – which was the communication between the MCC and the spacecraft – and on the Flight loop which was the Flight director’s loop where he talked to his front room control team.  Beyond that, it was also essential to dial into a loop connecting the backroom with the front room.

In my case this would have been a loop called PDRS (never peders) because the robotics front room position was known as Payload Deployment and Retrieval Systems.  Over this loop the backroom could provide analysis and advice to the PDRS controller in the front room in one ear, while he listened and talked to the flight director in his other ear.

You see, the loops system basically allowed flight controllers to hear intercom traffic from multiple sources, while only talking on one loop.  So, while it was expected that everyone would listen on the A/G and Flight loops – only the front room controllers would talk on the Flight loop and only the Capcom would talk on A/G.

The point of all of this was to allow flight controllers to assimilate information from multiple sources but also to allow them to separate the chatter such that when it was important, they focus only on the conversations that mattered to them.

It was, BTW, important to remember that there was no such thing as a “private” channel on the loops.  It was quite common practice when issues were “being worked” between the front and back room, for the flight director or the CapCom to listen in on the analysis while it was in progress – of course, the front room controller would then explicitly deliver the results of the analysis on the Flight loop so that everyone could hear it.  But often the flight director or the CapCom might find it useful to be a party to the detailed discussions to help them make a decision and report the results of the decision to the crew.

When I arrived at MCC it was likely that a handover was in progress – so the robotics backroom console would have been a little crowded instead of the normal two flight controllers, there would have been four present as one shift prepared to leave and the next prepared to take over.

I remember literally finding myself a stool in the corner and watching the proceedings.

Shift handover was one of the processes that had to be developed and refined to a fine art during the preceding years.  Handovers were necessary, of course, because mission control operated for 24 hours a day whenever a spacecraft was on orbit.  Normally this would require three control shifts.

It was a point of pride in Mission Control that it did not matter which team was on shift – the quality of the flight control never varied – and it was also a point of pride that shift handovers occurred on time regardless of what was going on at the time.

The most famous example of this was, of course, during Apollo 13, when the shift handover occurred just 90 minutes after the explosion that crippled the spacecraft.  The new shift came on and continued the troubleshooting and replanning seamlessly while the departing shift left the control room and reconvened on an empty support room to compare notes and continue their analysis.

To complete a handover, the on-coming flight controllers would arrive about 30 minutes early for their shift.  The first thing they would do would be pull up chairs next to the on-shift controllers and begin reading the handover log – which listed everything of note that had happened on the previous shift and any items that were currently under analysis or being watched. 

Once this was complete there would be a period of verbal briefings and general familiarisation as well as listening in to the flight and A/G loops to become familiar with what was going on in space.

At the designated handover time, the on coming Flight Director would ask his team to “meet him on the flight loop” and he would formally ask if they were ready to handover.  Upon receiving a GO from the entire team, the shift handover would take place.  But this mostly consisted of a bit of shuffling of chairs as the new team took their positions in front of the consoles.  The out-going shift would generally continue to sit with their colleagues for another 15 to 30 minutes to ensure that the handover had been completed smoothly.

In those days of the space shuttle program, the flight control team consisted of about 20 positions.

Each of these positions had a number of backroom controllers – somewhere between 2 and 6 and there were also facilities in MCC for engaging “second line” engineering support when more detailed analysis was needed, but this team of around 100 people  were the team of human beings whose primary purpose in life was operating manned spacecraft on orbit.  Other than a similar team in Russia, they were, quite literally the only people in the world who did that job.

But who were these flight controllers and what exactly was it that they were doing there in that storied building called Mission Control by the world, and MCC by those who worked there.

To some extent they were who they had always been since the days of Gemini and Apollo. They were mostly engineers, from across disciplines and across the United States. They were still mostly men, but that was changing. There were women in MCC although nowhere near 50%, uncommon, but not unusual.

In fact, STS-63, the mission flying that day featured the first female shuttle pilot, Eileen Collins – who would go on to fly three more missions including two as commander.

For many flight controllers this was the only, or one of the few jobs they had ever had.  For many, working in the space program was something they had dreamed of doing for a long time.

Of course, the difference between 1995 and 1965 was that there were also a lot of people in the building who had been doing this dream job for a long time.

In 1965, everyone was new to space flight. In 1995, the MCC was mostly staffed with veterans, some of whom had actually worked on the Apollo program. Many were certainly veterans of the entire shuttle program, meaning that they had over 10 years experience some would probably have worked on as many as 50 missions.

But that was also something that was changing in 1995. There was definitely a sense of a changing of the guard in the air.

The Apollo era veterans who had been the core of just about every flight control team in the early days of the space shuttle were becoming increasingly difficult to find.

The legendary Gene Kranz had retired years earlier.

The flight controllers that had come in at the start of the shuttle program were increasingly moving on or moving up the management ranks and NASA was actually in the process of doing a fair bit of hiring so there were quite a few fresh faces around the halls of MCC.

Mostly in the back rooms though. The front room, the MOCR, was still, by and large, the home of grizzled veterans.

This was largely due to the nature of the job of flight controller and the way a flight controllers career progressed.

The job that flight controllers did, when they were in MCC, was effectively to monitor – and really to some extent to oversee – the operation of a spacecraft in orbit.  They really did and do feel that the safe and successful completion of “The Mission” depends critically on what they do and what they decide throughout the mission.

Time and again, spaceflight has proved that not all contingencies are predictable and that events will arise that must be responded to – “in real time”.  Spaceflight has also proven that the spacecraft are sufficiently complicated machines that the people who fly in them require help from experts on the ground to ensure that they operate them safely and successfully.

The reason that flight controllers could provide this expertise was because of what they did when they were not in MCC.

Because, of course, while in those days, the space shuttle was flying pretty frequently – every 2 to 3 months, that still meant that most flight controllers – spent only 1 week in every 10 actually working on a space mission.

The rest of the job consisted of equal parts of studying and understanding their particular systems, planning future missions, and then in testing and simulation in which they attempted to envision what could go wrong, how it would express itself when it did, how it would affect their plans, and what they would do about it – in an environment where those decisions could determine literally whether people lived or died.

As such, the qualities that were most highly valued in a flight controller were, to paraphrase Gene Kranz – toughness and competence, but also teamwork.

Really effective flight controllers were capable of making difficult decisions, making them correctly, but also making them or contributing to making them as part of a team.

And, that is the reason that breaking into the front room at MCC was something that took time.

First of all time had to be spent to become competent.  New flight controllers would typically spend years learning aspects of their trade starting with the most basic engineering analyses and tasks and working their way through their way up to the more complicated and complex ones.

At each stage they would be evaluated to ensure that they could not only understand the data they were looking at, but that they could assimilate that information and make decisions based on the data.  It was particularly important for flight controllers to develop the discipline to know when they didn’t have all the data they needed.

A famous line that every new flight controller learned was “In God We Trust, all others bring data.”

Once the flight controller had demonstrated the ability to understand their systems they would be evaluated on their ability to contribute first to their own discipline – working in the back room to support their front room and in their ability to work across disciplines with other flight controllers in the planning of missions and in responding to contingencies during training and simulation.  Because, of course, there was very rarely any contingency that affected only one flight control discipline.

And through this training and experience flight controllers needed to develop and demonstrate the ability to make decisions.  The decisions needed to be made based on predetermined guidance known as flight rules, they needed to be based on data observed at the time, they needed to be made in a timely fashion – when they were needed and not before.  But, overall they needed to be made correctly – despite whatever else was going on.  The most prized possession of any flight controller was the ability not to – in Rudyard Kipling’s words – “Lose their head when all about them were losing theirs and blaming it on them.”

By consistently demonstrating their competence, their ability to make tough decisions and their ability to be a constructive member of the team, a flight controller could work their way from being a trainee in the back room, to working shifts in the backroom, to leading those shifts, to eventually working as a front room controller.

This culture of competence, toughness and teamwork meant that the community of flight controllers was and still is, a small, tight-knit, and purposeful.  It was and is, in a very real sense, a community and it had and has its own culture.

So perhaps it would be helpful to do a quick tour of the Mission Operations Control Room to understand the membership of this community.

The names and natures of the flight control positions changed over the 30 years from Gemini to shuttle but the basic organisation stayed the same.  At the time that I worked in MCC, the front row of the MCOR was called “The Trench” occupied – as it always had been by the flight control positions most directly involved in the most basic spacecraft operations of getting to and from space safely  and in making sure the spacecraft went were it was intended to go.

These controllers were:

  • FIDO – the flight dynamics officer.
  • TRAJ – the trajectory control officer.
  • GUIDO – the Guidance and Control Officer.
  • Rendezvous – the rendezvous control officer.

In the Gemini and Apollo days they also would have included the RETRO officer who was responsible for the “get home safely” part of the missions.

IN the shuttle days they were joined in the trench by:

  • Prop – the propulsion control officer who was responsible for all of the shuttle’s fuel systems and orbital maneuvering jets.
  • GC – the ground controller who managed all of the infrastructure on the ground that allowed the flight control team to communicate with the spacecraft and to do their jobs.

In the second row of MCC were a series of positions that were responsible for the various spacecraft systems when it was in orbit.  These included:

  • EECOM – Environmental Engineer and Consumables Manager – who was responsible for air, water, heating and cooling – this was also the position, famously, that was the focus of the initial troubleshooting of the Apollo 13 disaster.
  • EGIL – Electrical Generation and Illumination.
  • GNC – Guidance Navigation and Controls Officer.

As well as:

  • EVA – in charge of preparing for an monitoring Extravehicular Activities or EVA’s.
  • Payloads – in charge of monitoring and coordinating all of the systems which were hosted on board the shuttle during its various flights.

They were joined for the initial phase of flight by Booster who was responsible for the main shuttle engines and the Solid Rocket Boosters that delivered the shuttle to orbit.  In the shuttle days this position was the focus of much attention for the first few minutes of flight but was unmanned after that first shift.

In the Gemini and particularly the Apollo days it was a position that would have  taken on much more importance for longer.

In the third row of MCC sat the conductor of the whole orchestra – the Flight Director only known ever as flight and next to him the Capcom – or capsule communicator an experienced astronaut and the only voice that the crew on orbit would ever hear during flight.

This row also contained the FAO – Flight Activities Officer who coordinated all on-orbit activities and made sure the crew had and knew what they needed, when they needed it. 

At the other end of the third row sat INCO, the instrumentation and communications officer who not only had responsibility for ensuring that the other flight controllers were receiving the communications and telemetry from orbit that they needed, but INCO was also the flight controller who was responsible for uplinking any commands that the ground wanted to send directly to the spacecraft.  This also meant that INCO had the enviable capacity to control the shuttle’s cameras – a function which he often exercised when the crew were asleep in order to provide interesting views for the mission control team and the world.

The back row of the MCC was occupied by the flight surgeon who monitored the astronauts health on orbit, the Public Affairs officer who handled all contact between the outside world and the mission including any of the many interviews and interactions between astronauts and the public or the media.

The back row was also home to the MMACS, the Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm, and Crew Systems officer who oversaw all of the miscellaneous equipment not covered by other controllers – and finally last, but certainly no least – the Payload Deployment and Retrieval Systems officer who was responsible for the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System – known to one and all as either The Arm or the Canadarm depending on which side of the 49th parallel you happened to be standing.

This was the cast of characters and over the course of 30 years they had been involved in some moments of pretty high drama.

Everyone knows, of course, about Apollo 11 –  and Neil Armstrong’s one small step.

Most people also know about the odyssey of Apollo 13 and how the Mission Operations team brought the crew home safely in their crippled spacecraft.

Fewer people know about the brief but highly… umm… charged moments of Apollo 12, when the rocket was struck by lightning 52 seconds into the flight.  The telemetry from the vehicle was suddenly garbled and MCC had no reliable guidance information. The astronauts reported that everything seemed Nominal but in MCC it looked like the huge Saturn 5 rocket might be going out of control. It looked like an abort might have to be called.

But the EECOM controller – John Aaron noticed that the failure signature matched that from an earlier simulation, correctly diagnosed the problem and corrected it by asking Capcom to make single “call” to throw a switch that practically no one else in MCC or on the rocket knew existed, but Alan Bean – the Lunar Module pilot knew what the call meant, he moved the “Signal Conditioning Electronics (SCE) switch to AUX” – and the problem cleared up immediate.

Apollo 12 made it safely to the Moon and back.  Alan Bean and his commander Pete Conrad became the third and fourth Americans to walk on the Moon.

It was a quintessential MCC moment.  John Aaron was tough enough not to panic in the face of potential mission ending failure, competent enough to remember the lesson that one of the pre-flight simulations had taught him and the team around him trusted him to make the call, even if they did not really know what he was talking about.

Throughout the spacelab and space shuttle programs the toughness, competence and teamwork of the flight control team would be tested in large and small ways.

Like the moment during the first shuttle mission when the payload bay doors opened and the first sight to greet the astronauts and flight controllers on the ground was that of a whole raft of missing thermal tiles on the aft section of the shuttle.

The tiles represented the new and innovative mechanism for allowing the shuttle to survive the heat of re-entry – but which were intended to be re-used unlike the ablative shielding used by Apollo and Gemini (and just about every other vehicle that has ever been to space – come to that).

The spectre of the missing shuttle tiles was a potentially life, mission and program ending disaster.  Needless to say the next few days were consumed with questions such as – were the missing tiles critical,  should any of the reentry procedures be modified to make them less critical, Could anything be done about the missing tiles, should anything be done.  And was it possible to determine if any other tiles were missing.

In the end, it was decided that the small sections of missing tiles were not going to be critical and that the mission would proceed as originally planned.  Which it did.  Successfully.

They had, as a group, also lived through the loss of the Apollo 1 crew on the pad at KSC during a pre-flight simulation, and NASA’s first fatal in-flight accident – the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger during its ascent to Orbit.

Both disasters had left their mark on the people and culture of Mission Control.

Since the Challenger accident the shuttle program had been revised and reorganised, some things had changed, but not NASA’s commitment to flying spacecraft, and flying them regularly – although not at the pace anticipated before the accident.

One of the other things that had changed was a growing feeling that NASA could no longer go to space alone.  Space flight was becoming much more international.  Since the Russians and the US had competed with one another for space faring honours in the 1960’s other nations had been quietly pursuing their own space programs. 

Canada had joined the US and Russia as the third nation in space in 1962 with the launch of Alouette.  Canada had provided the arm to the shuttle program and in return had earned places for Canadians as payload specialists in shuttle flights, three of whom had flown by 1995.

Other nations had since inaugurated their own space programs and built and operated their own satellites.  European nations had banded together to form the European Space Agency and had, among other achievements, designed and built a series of their own launch vehicles.

The Japanese space program was growing and moving forward having developed its own launch vehicle and launched its own satellites. 

European and Japanese astronauts had flown on several space shuttle missions.

And the Russian space program had not been standing still.

While the Americans focussed first on the Moon, and then on building a reusable spacecraft in the form of the shuttle, Russia had been focussed on building their expertise in long duration space flight.  Over the decades prior to 1995, Russians had learned more about keeping a long term presence orbiting the planet than everyone else in the world combined. 

Now forces of international diplomacy, domestic politics, and financial realities were driving all of these international partners together to plan the first truly international space project.  The International Space Station – and it’s precursor – the Shuttle-MIR phase 1 program would represent a new and novel way of getting to and staying in space. 

And that was the other reason why the morning in February 1995 was so special.

It was not only my first shift in the Mission Control centre.  But it was also the very first flight of the International Space Station era as Shuttle commander Jim Wetherbee flew the space shuttle Discovery for it’s rendezvous with the Russian MIR space station – and to some extent with destiny.

On STS-63 there would be no physical docking,  that would come later that spring.  But that event was only a few months away.  By the time of that event I would be working regular shifts in Mission Control doing tests and preparing for the very first multi-national space mission – STS-74 – which involved three nations shaking hands on orbit both figuratively and literally.

A new era was arriving.  It was arriving quickly.   It would not change everything, but it would change a lot of things.

It was an exciting time to be working in the space program.

And so next week we are going to talk to three people who were there.  Who arrived at MCC just as the new wave was rising and who have continued to work in and around it for the last two and half decades.

So join me next time as we talk about what THAT has been like.

Thanks for listening and Talk to you again soon.

About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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