Tag Archive: NASA


I’m often asked if I’m working certain missions, like the recent Mars Curiosity missions, and many times I find myself explaining that there is more than one NASA mission control center, and more than one NASA facility. There are actually several throughout the United States, and there are even more control centers and space agencies in different countries, such as Russia and Japan. Not all of the control centers look like what you see on tv, but each facility works different kinds of projects that contribute to the future of science. So, how many are there, and what do each of them do? I suppose that question depends on which point in history you want to look at. There have been at least 30 significant facilities throughout the more than 50 year history of manned space flight, and each one has a unique job in the space industry. In the image below, you get an idea of how many there are now (click to go to a NASA presentation) for ISS (International Space Station) operations alone. I’ve attempted to capture some of the history of the different facilities, organizations, and programs in quasi chronological order, and touch a bit on what each has contributed to our planet’s space history. The dates I used are sort of a combination of when different facilities were established, and when different missions were accomplished. I’ve linked the images back to different pages about each organization or historical event ’cause I’m fancy like that. I know I left things out, so feel free to comment and link to additional information. I’ll try to make a post next week about flight controllers at Johnson Space Center. 🙂

Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) (1915-present)

Technically Dryden gets its origins in 1915, but it did not become a part of NASA until 1958 when NASA was formed. DFRC is located inside Edwards Air Force Base, and was named in honor of the late Hugh L. Dryden in 1978. Dryden himself was an aeronautical engineer, and was NASA’s deputy administrator until his death in 1965. DFRC has been called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Muroc Flight Test Unit, the High-Speed Flight Research Station (1949), and the High-Speed Flight Station (1954). Dryden is NASA’s premier site for aeronautical research and operates some of the most advanced aircraft in the world including the modified Boeing 747 known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) which was designed to carry a Space Shuttle orbiter back to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) if one landed at Edwards. The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle or LLRV was an Apollo Project era program at Dryden that built a simulator for the Moon landing. The LLRVs were used to study and analyze piloting techniques needed to fly and land the Apollo Lunar Module in the moon’s airless environment. Today, Dryden manages the launch abort systems testing and integration, in partnership with the JSC and Lockheed Martin, for the Space Shuttle’s future replacement.

Langley Research Center (LaRC) (1917-present)

Langley Research Center (as well as Langley Field and the Langley Laboratory) are named for aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Established in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), LaRC currently devotes two-thirds of its programs to aeronautics, and the rest to space. During Project Mercury between 1958 and 1963, LaRC served as the main office of the Space Task Group, which was eventually transferred in 1963 to the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas.

Langley pioneered many firsts in space, including the Lunar Landing Facility providing the simulation of lunar gravity which opened in 1965. Since the start of Project Gemini, the Lunar Landing Research Facility simulated moon landings and included a mock Apollo Lunar Module suspended from a gantry over a simulated lunar landscape, as well a work on some Lunar Landing Research Vehicles (LLRV). Langley also pioneered the Viking program for Mars exploration, and supported NASA’s mission by designing a spacecraft for a Mars landing.

Soviet Space Program (1930ish-1991)

A post about global space operations would be incomplete without talking about what the Soviet space program pioneered. This poster was borrowed from a Russian travel blog located here: Russia Travel Blog | All About Russia in English. Please let me know if I should take this reference down and have borrowed it against some sort of copyright.

The Soviet space program is composed of the rocketry and space exploration programs conducted by the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), also known as the Soviet Union, which was dissolved with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This program is responsible for the first intercontinental ballistic missile (the R-7 Semyorka, 1957), first satellite (Sputnik-1, 1957), first animal in space (the dog Laika on Sputnik 2, 1957), first human in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1), first woman in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6 in 1963), first spacewalk (cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on Voskhod 2), first Moon impact (Luna 2), first image of the far side of the moon (Luna 3) and unmanned lunar soft landing (Luna 9), first space rover, first space station, and first interplanetary probe (yes I totally yoinked that list from Wikipedia plus a few edits of my own, but it’s true! A bunch of other firsts and tidbits are out there if you’re interested).

Although the Soviet space program is listed as starting in the 30’s with their rocketry accomplishments, the first well known accomplishment of the Soviet space program was the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik1, on the on 4th of October, 1957. Sputnik was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and obtained data through the propagation of radio signals in the ionosphere. Telemetry included data on temperatures inside and on the surface of the sphere, and the density of the upper atmosphere could be deduced from its drag on the orbit.

Another famous Soviet accomplishment was the space station Mir, but it was not the first. The first space station was the Soviet’s Salyut1 in 1971. Mir actually operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, at first by the Soviet Union and then by Russia. Although the vast majority of the station’s crew were Soviet or Russian, the station was also made accessible to astronauts from North America, several European nations and Japan. Mir was serviced by Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and U.S. space shuttles, and was visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 12 different nations. The station was the first consistently inhabited long-term research station in space, and held the record for the longest uninterrupted human presence in space until 23 October 2010 when the International Space Station (ISS) surpassed it. Mir still holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, 437 days 18 hours by Valeri Polyakov. Mir’s power was provided by several photovoltaic arrays mounted directly on the modules, and it maintained an altitude between 184mi (296 km) and 262 mi (421 km). Mir traveled at an average speed of 27,700 km/h (17,200 mph), completing 15.7 orbits per day.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (1936-present)

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is located in Pasadena, California, and is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft as well as unmanned planetary missions are managed by JPL, while Goddard manages unmanned earth observation missions and observatories in Earth orbit. JPL is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network, and has its very own mission control center.

JPL is responsible for the currently well known Mars Curiosity mission, part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The Mars Science Laboratory mission also includes the Cassini–Huygens mission orbiting Saturn, the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres and asteroid Vesta, the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission to the Moon, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) X-ray telescope, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Ames Research Center (1939-present)

The Ames Research Center is located at Moffett Field, California, and was selected as America’s second aeronautical research laboratory in December 1939. Ames became part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) when NASA was formed in 1958. Ames research focuses on gravity’s effects on living things, celestial bodies, planets and life in the universe. It is the lead center for the Kepler mission (pictured here), whose purpose is to find habitable Earth-sized planets outside of our solar system. The Ames center participates in biosciences, bioengineering, radiation and space biotechnology, earth science, airborne science, biosphere science, atmosphere science, astrophysics, planetary systems and exobiology.

Glenn Research Center (1942-present)

The John H. Glenn Research Center (GRC) was established in 1942 as part of NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and is located at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio between Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and the Cleveland Metroparks’s Rocky River Reservation. GRC’s primary objective is to research, design, develop and test innovative technology for aeronautics and spaceflight. The Glenn Telescience Support Center (TSC) provides 24-7 Operations Support for Space Experiments on the International Space Station (ISS).

GRC was called the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory when it was conceptualized and funded in June 1940, was renamed the Flight Propulsion Research Laboratory in 1947, the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in 1948 (after George W. Lewis (head of NACA from 1919 to 1947)) and the NASA Lewis Research Center in 1958. On March 1, 1999, it was renamed the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field after American fighter pilot, astronaut and politician John Glenn. John H. Glenn was original from Ohio, and was the first American to orbit Earth when he piloted “Friendship 7” around the globe three times in 1962.

Japan’s Space Program – NASDA, NAL, ISAS, and JAXA (1955-present)

Because of the overlap of the pieces of Japan’s space program, I decided to include everything together here.

JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) was formed on 1 October 2003 as a merger of three organizations: the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL), and National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA). Before the merger, ISAS was responsible for space and planetary research, while NAL was focused on aviation research. NASDA trained Japanese astronauts, developed rockets and satellites, and built the Japanese Experiment Module called Kibo, which is a part of the International Space Station (ISS).

The National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL), originally known as the National Aeronautical Laboratory, was established in 1955. It assumed its present name with the addition of the Aerospace Division in 1963. NAL has pursued research on aircraft, rockets, and other aeronautical transportation systems.

The Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science (ISAS) was formed in 1964, a merger between the rocket group in the Institute of Industrial Science of University of Tokyo, and the Institute of Aeronautics. ISAS is a Japanese national research organization of astrophysics using rockets, astronomical satellites and interplanetary probes, and became a division of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2011. In 1970, ISAS’s L-4S-5 launched Japan’s first artificial satellite: Ōsumi.

The National Space Development Agency of Japan, or NASDA, was established on October 1, 1969 under the National Space Development Agency Law. NASDA was responsible for developing satellites and launch vehicles as well as launching and tracking them, and established Tsukuba Space Center in 1972. Work on the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), called “Kibo,” at the International Space Station (ISS) was started under NASDA and was later inherited by JAXA. Kibo means Hope in Japanese, and is the largest module on the ISS.

Mohri Mamoru flew under the NASDA program as first Japanese astronaut to go into space. He flew as a payload specialist aboard the Spacelab-J mission of the U.S. space shuttle in September 1992. Chiaki Mukai was the first Japanese woman in space, having flown aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in July 1994, and was the first Japanese citizen to have two spaceflights when she returned to space aboard Discovery in 1998.

The Tanegashima Space Center (TNSC) is the largest space-development facility in Japan. HTV-1, an unmanned cargo ship, was launched on the maiden flight of the H-IIB carrier rocket from TNSC. HTV-1 was the first Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle, launched in September 2009 to resupply the ISS and support Kibo. HTV space craft, like Progress and ATV, burn up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and help act as the ISS’s trash disposal.

The Tsukuba Space Center (TKSC), located in Tsukuba Science City, is the operations facility for JAXA and opened in 1972. TKSC’s tourist center features models of the H-II Transfer Vehicle and a full-sized mock-up of the Kibo module. TKSC serves as the primary location for Japan’s space operations and research programs. The Japanese astronauts involved in the ISS are trained in part here in addition to the training they receive at the JSC. The base of development and operations is the Space Station Integration and Promotion Center (SSIPC – pronounced “sip-sea”), and is where the Japanese Flight Control Team is located. The astronauts onboard ISS refer to SSIPC when they want to call the Japanese flight control team.

Baikonur Cosmodrome (1955-present)

The Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in Kazakhstan, is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility and is leased by the Kazakh government to Russia. It was originally built by the Soviet Union as the base of operations for its space program, and today is where all manned Russian spaceflights are launched. Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft in human history, was launched from one of Baikonur’s launch pads, and is known today as “Gagarin’s Start”. This is also the location from which the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka, was tested.

Right now, the Russian Soyuz is the only vehicle capable of taking people to the international space station. They also have a payload vehicle called the Progress, which helps supply the ISS (International Space Station). Both of these vehicles launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Presently, the only other country with the ability to launch people into space is China.

NASA Headquarters (1958-present)
NASA headquarters is located in Washington D.C. The building pictured here is the two-building Independence Square complex at 300 E Street SW completed in 1992. The building houses NASA’s leadership, and provides guidance and direction to NASA. NASA was established on July 29, 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Act, replacing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NASA became operational on October 1, 1958, and has since led a multitude of missions, including exploring the solar system, doing science in low earth orbit for the benefit of all mankind, and putting people on the moon.

There are ten field centers and several installations around the country, divided into three Mission Directorates:

1) Aeronautics: Pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve our ability to explore and which have practical applications on Earth.

2) Human Exploration and Operations: Focuses on International Space Station operations and human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

3) Science: Explores the Earth, moon, Mars, and beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.

Goddard Space Flight Center (1959-present)
The Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) was established on May 1, 1959 as NASA’s first space flight center and is located in Greenbelt, Maryland. GSFC is named in recognition of Dr. Robert H. Goddard (1882–1945), the pioneer of modern rocket propulsion in the United States, and was known before that as the Beltsville Space Center. Goddard manages unmanned earth observation missions and observatories in Earth orbit, while unmanned planetary missions are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Goddard can develop, support, design and build the spacecraft for any unmanned mission, and is a major laboratory for developing and operating unmanned scientific spacecraft. GSFC operates the Space Network and the Near Earth Network, which are two spaceflight tracking and data acquisition networks. GSFC also develops and maintains space and Earth science data information systems, as well as satellite systems for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For NASA, GSFC manages many missions including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Explorer program, the Discovery Program, the Earth Observing System (EOS), INTEGRAL, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) and Swift.

Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) (1960-present)

The Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Star City (near Moscow) is the center for Russian space training. It was named in honor of Yuri Gagarin after his death. Yuri became the first man in space on April 12, 1961 on SV “Vostok”. The GCTC was under supervision jointly by the Russian Defence Ministry and the Russian Space Agency Roskosmos until 2009, and is now the responsibility of their space agency.

The training of cosmonauts for various space missions happens here, and GCTC includes spaceflight simulations with G-Force training and mission specific training for spacewalks called “EVAs” (Extravehicular Activity). GCTC monitors the health of its cosmonauts as they train, and helps teach them how to navigate by the stars and survive potential Soyuz failures. Soyuz is the space vehicle used to take astronauts and cosmonauts into space, and the sole transport vehicle for taking people to the International Space Station (ISS).

The CCTC includes the Hydrolab, a huge pool of water similar to the NBL (neutral bouncy lab) in the United States. The Hydrolab helps train cosmonauts in the Russian space suits called the “Orlan” suits to use tools and prepares them to work outside of the space station. Different to scale mock ups of the Soyuz and space station modules are also available in various models in the GCTC to train cosmonauts on the functions and operations of instruments.

1960-1965 – Mercury and Gemini

During the Mercury/Gemini days, the Mercury Control Center (later dubbed the Mission Control Center after 1963) was located in Cape Canaveral, Florida at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was located inside of a building called the Engineering Support Building, and it was at the east end of Mission Control Road. The Mercury–Redstone and Mercury-Atlas missions were all controlled here, along with the unmanned Gemini 1 and Gemini 2, and manned Gemini 3 missions. This building used to be a stop on the Kennedy Space Center tour, but was demolished in 2010 after it was estimated that it would cost $5 million to repair the facility from salt air damage and asbestos. The consoles and other artifacts of this control center, however, are still a part of the Early Space Exploration tours, at Kennedy Space Center.

Stennis Space Center (1961-present)

The John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC) is a NASA rocket testing facility that was formed in 1961, and is located in Hancock County, Mississippi. Its original name, Mississippi Test Operations, was changed to Mississippi Test Facility in 1965. In 1974, the facility was named the National Space Technology Laboratories. Finally, in May 1988, it was renamed the John C. Stennis Space Center in honor of U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis for his support of the nation’s space program. The boosters that carried our astronauts to the moon were tested here, and in June 1975, the Space Shuttle Main Engine was tested here for the first time. All the engines used to boost the Space Shuttle into low-Earth orbit were flight certified at SSC. Presently, the SSC is NASA’s largest rocket engine test facility.

Kennedy Space Center (1962-present)

The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), located on Merritt Island, Florida, is the United States launch site that has been used for every NASA human space flight since 1968. The Kennedy Launch Control Center (LCC) would take care of NASA’s space ships until they left the hangar, when control was then handed over to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. KSC was authorized in 1958, and was originally known as the Launch Operations Directorate (LOD), reporting to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the fourth-largest structure in the world by volume and was the largest when completed in 1965. Both of KSC’s launch pads are on the ocean, 3 miles (5 km) east of the VAB. The Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC was used for most Shuttle landings and is among the longest runways in the world. KSC was also home to the Merritt Island Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network station (MILA), a radio communications and spacecraft tracking complex.

Despite the end of the shuttle program, KSC continues to manage and operate unmanned rocket launch facilities for the US government’s civilian space program from three pads at the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX’s Falcon heavy lift rocket and the Dragon all launched from here. Dragon is the first commercial vehicle to successfully dock with the ISS (International Space Station).

Johnson Space Center (1963-present)

This photo here is Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas as seen from the International Space Station (ISS). The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC), once known as the Manned Spacecraft Center, is NASA’s center for human spaceflight training, research, and flight control. It is home to the United States astronaut corps and is responsible for training astronauts from both the U.S. and its international partners. JSC was constructed on land donated by Rice University and opened in 1963. On February 19, 1973, the center was renamed in honor of the late U.S. president and Texas native, Lyndon B. Johnson. JSC has been the center of manned space flight operations since the beginning, playing a major role in Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station (ISS). The mission control center you usually see on TV is located here. There are actually multiple control centers at JSC, which I discuss in my sections on the different manned space flight programs throughout history.

Lots of products and scientific discoveries have stemmed off of the work we do at NASA, and on average NASA returns 10 dollars for every dollar spent on her. JSC also leads NASA’s flight-related scientific and medical research programs. Technologies developed for spaceflight are now in use in many areas of medicine, energy, transportation, agriculture, communications and electronics. The Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) office performs the physical science research, and JSC works with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine to study the health risks related to long-duration space flight. Some of the benefits of that medical research include advancements in medicine for osteoporosis. You also have NASA to thank for your GPS and your cellular coverage, as well as cordless power tools and clear braces.

1965-1975 – Gemini and Apollo

The Launch Control Center (LCC), is a four-story building attached to the southeast corner of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and is located at KSC (Kennedy Space Center) on Merritt Island, Florida. It has been used for the supervision and control of launches since the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Its first manned launch was Apollo 8 on December 21, 1968. Pictured here is what the LCC looked like on September 4th, 2009 after the new hurricane-rated window systems were installed in the four Firing Rooms.

The four Firing Rooms inside the LCC supervise and control space vehicle launch operations all the way up until the vehicle clears the launch tower. This is where you hear the “go/no go” for launch on NASA TV. On launch day, a firing room is packed with at least 200 engineers checking the vehicle’s systems to make sure everything is ready for launch. When not being used for launch, firing rooms also monitor the health of the vehicles while they’re waiting to fly. After launch, the vehicle gets handed over to the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. Pictured here is what the firing room looked like during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969. Apollo 12 was the sixth manned flight in the United States Apollo program and the second to land on the Moon four months after Apollo 11.

In June 1965, the Apollo Mission Operations Control Center (MOCR, pronounced “moh-ker”) was used for the first time for Gemini 4. It was located in the Manned Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas (later named Johnson Space Center in 1973). There were actually 2 MOCRs, and they controlled all of the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and even the Space Shuttle flights up until 1998. Each individual row of consoles was on its own tier, all overlooking 3 huge projection screens down at the front of the room. Each row consisted of flight controllers specialized in different systems for the space craft.

MOCR1 was used for Apollo 7, Sklab, and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project missions, while MOCR2 was used for the Gemini and Apollo flights. MOCR2 was actually used when Apollo 11 first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Since 1985 this room has been a designated National Historic Landmark, and can still be visited today. It was last used in 1992 as the flight control room for a shuttle mission, and was subsequently converted back almost entirely to its Apollo-era configuration. The preserved room is pictured here on the left, with my husband and I hanging out in the FLIGHT and CAPCOM chairs.

Pictured here is a shot of one of the consoles and a couple of the projection screens from the third tier. In the center projection screen you can see what the World Map projection used to look like, and the sinusoidal lines that marked vehicle orbits about the planet. On the right side of the console itself you see a couple of tubes (notice the little silver caps in the 6-cubby hole space). Flight controllers used these to pass papers (and occasionally snacks, sodas, and the rumored small animals) back and forth to the MER (Mission Evaluation Room) and their back rooms (MPSR – Multi Purpose Support Room). These tubes used a vacuum pipe system, similar to something you might see at a bank drive through, and were routed throughout the building.

Pictured here is another pretty cool piece of history from the Apollo MOCR2. It reads:

“This mirror flown on Aquarius, LM-7, to the moon April 11-17, 1970. Returned by a greatful Apollo 13 crew to “reflect the image” of the people in Mission Control who got us back!

James Lowell – John Swigert – Fred Haise”

As many of you may know, the Apollo 13 astronauts were meant to walk on the moon, but suffered a devastating failure two days after launch when an oxygen tank exploded. The explosion crippled their vehicle and nearly cost them their lives. After four intense days, the Lunar Module made it back to Earth. This “successful failure” was made possible by the flight control team on the ground, and this mirror was placed here to memorialize the event. A movie was also made about the events of this mission, starring Tom Hanks in 1995. This movie also stemmed several famous quotes: “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option”. Of course the real quote is, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” and flight director Gene Kranz never actually said “failure is not an option,” but it made for a darn good movie tag line! Another interesting fact: the intense scene after the accident where all of the flight controllers are jabbering back and forth at mach speed was actually slowed down for dramatic effect! If you have not seen the movie, I do recommend it highly.

The European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) (1968-present)

The ESTEC is situated in Noordwijk, South Holland, in the western Netherlands. I was actually pretty interested to learn this because I had no idea this was located in Holland. Being half dutch, I was excited to learn that the center of the European Space Agency’s technology development and test center for spacecraft and space technology was located in the Netherlands. ESTEC is the technical heart where most ESA projects are born and where they are guided through the various phases of development.

The ESTEC develops all types of ESA missions: science, exploration, telecommmunications, human spaceflight, satellite navigation and Earth observation. It also provides the managerial and technical competences and facilities needed to initiate and manage the development of space systems and technologies. Its test center specializes in spacecraft, with supporting engineering laboratories specialised in systems engineering, components and materials, and working within a network of other facilities and laboratories.

European Space Agency (ESA) (1975-present)

ESA’s Headquarters are located in Paris, France, and currently includes 19 member states. ESA participates in the United State’s ISS (International Space Station) program, and through that partnership has sent astronauts into space and launched resupply ships known as ATVs (Automated Transfer Vehicles. When undocked, the ATVs act as trash disposal as they burn up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. ESA has launched unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, operated Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintained the Arianespace spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre, at Kourou, French Guiana. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

Arianespace Launch Control (1980-present)

Arianespace, located in Kourou, French Guiana, was founded in 1980 as the world’s first satellite launch company. The French space agency CNES, Astrium, and all the European space companies are all share holders. Arianespace has signed contracts with 80 customers and carried out 208 Ariane launches, launching more than half of the commercial satellites now in service worldwide, 26 Soyuz launches (2 at CSG and 24 at Baikonur via its joint subsidiary with Russia, Starsem) and the first launch of Vega. Vega is an expendable launch system in use by Arianespace jointly developed by the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

Space Shuttle (1981–2011)

The Shuttle program was run from both Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, and Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. KSC takes care of the vehicle until it leaves the launch platform, while JSC takes over for the rest of the mission. When the Shuttle program began in 1981, the Apollo MOCRs in Houston became Flight Control Rooms (FCR, pronounced “ficker”). FCR1 (formerly Apollo/Gemini’s MOCR1) became the very first shuttle control room, while FCR2 (since converted back into historical MOCR2) was used mostly for classified DOD (Department of Defense) shuttle missions. Pictured here is what the FCR looked like for space shuttle mission STS-70.

In 1992, JSC began building a new five story extension to Building 30 – the building where the JSC Mission Control rooms reside – called “30 South”. This is where the Red, White, and Blue FCRs live, and went operational in 1998. FCR2 and the White FCR were jointly used for seven shuttle missions, STS-70 through STS-76, but after STS-76 the White FCR handled all following shuttle flights through the end of the program. When it was not in use for shuttle missions, the White FCR was reconfigured as a backup for the ISS (International Space Station) FCR. The Red FCR is used for SIMS, while the Blue FCR was the ISS FCR until the fall of 2006 when the former MOCR1 was upgraded into FCR1.

Pictured here is Firing Room 1 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida as it looked in 1998 in its shuttle configuration. This control room was set up with software used to simulate space shuttle flight and ground systems in the launch configuration. A team of flight controllers and engineers would work through a series of major failures and problems to prepare them for worst-case scenarios. These simulation scenarios, SIMs are still used today to train astronauts and flight controllers for potential failures, keep them current on the vehicle’s systems, and to certify new flight controllers.

Canadian Space Agency (1989-present)
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), located in Saint-Hubert Quebec, was established in March 1989. The CSA contributed the Canadarm to NASA’s Space Shuttle, as well as the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), which houses the Canadarm2 and Dextre on the International Space Station (ISS). Mission control operations for the Canadarm were handled by Houston the Canadian mission control center first became fully functional. Before the CSA, Canada contributed to the world of space exploration by launching Alouette 1 via NASA in September 1962, becoming the third country to put a man-made satellite into space. In 1972, Canada launched Anik A-1 and became the first country in the world to establish its own domestic geostationary communication satellite network.

European Astronaut Centre (1990-present)

The European Astronaut Centre (EAC) was established in 1990 and is located in Cologne, Germany. EAC provides the European Space Agency (ESA) with astronaut selection, training, medical support and surveillance, as well as support of astronauts and their families during preparation for and during flight. EAC is the training center for all European built hardware that flies to the ISS (International Space Station), including ESA’s Columbus laboratory systems, subsystems and payloads. The Columbus laboratory is one of the modules that is part of the International Space Station. EAC also trains for astronaut operations for the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a payload vehicle that helps resupply the ISS.

Roscosmos (1992-present)

The Soviet Space Program was dissolved with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Russia and the Ukraine inherited the program. Russia created the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, now known as the Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS), while Ukraine created the National Space Agency of Ukraine (NSAU). Roscosmos is the government agency responsible for the Russian space science program and general aerospace research, and is located in Moscow. The Mission Control space flight operations center (MCC-M) is located in a nearby city of Korolev. Cosmonauts Training Centre (GCTC) is in Star City. Launch facilities used are the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Roscosmos launched the first module of the International Space Station (ISS) “Zarya” in 1998, also known as the Service Module (SM). Roscosmos also contributed Zvezda (The Functional Cargo Block, or FGB) and the Rassvet module, also known as the Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM-1). The Nauka module (Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM)) is the last planned component of the ISS, but has not yet launched. With the end of the space shuttle program, Roskosmos is the sole party responsible for launching astronauts and cosmonauts into space. The Russian Soyuz-TMA spacecraft launches three people at a time, and the unmanned Progress resupplies the space station. The Soyuz rocket is capable of launching about 7.5 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), and when there is a 6-person crew on the ISS, two Soyuz remained docked at all times to act as life boats to the crew.

China National Space Administration (1993-present)

The Chinese space program is directed by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). CNSA is working to develop a permanent Chinese space station in 2020 and crewed expeditions to the Moon and Mars. China has already sent satellites to orbit the moon. 2024 is the proposed date of China’s first moonwalk. The first uncrewed Mars exploration program could take place between 2014–2033, followed by a crewed phase in 2040-2060.

The first Chinese crewed flight was Yang Liwei’s successful 2003 flight aboard Shenzhou 5. Yang was in orbit for 21 hours, making China the third country to independently send humans into space. The Shenzhou program had four uncrewed test flights and two crewed missions, the first of which was Shenzhou 1 on November 20th, 1999. Shenzhou 7 was China’s first spacewalk mission.

On September 29th, 2011, China launched Tiangong 1, the first step to testing the technology required for a planned space station, and China made 2 unmanned docking missions with the module in October of 2011. The Shenzhou 9 craft docked on the 18th of June, 2012 with Tiangong1, marking China’s first manned spacecraft docking. A second space lab, Tiangong 2, will be launched in 2013 after the first one is deorbited. The Chinese space station is scheduled to be completed in 2020, just as the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled to retire. Technically, the Shenzhou spacecraft can dock with the ISS, as its docking mechanisms were designed after Russian ones, but I am unaware of any plans for such a mission.

International Space Station (1998–present)

The International Space Station (ISS) FCR is located in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center. The first ISS control room, originally named the Special Vehicles Operations Room (SVO), was called the “Blue FCR,” and was operational 24-7 to support the ISS.

In the fall of 2006, the ISS FCR moved to FCR1 (formerly the Apollo MOCR1). It had its original consoles and tiers removed after shuttle mission STS-71 in 1995, and had originally been converted to a “Life Sciences Center” for ISS payload control operations. It was substantially remodeled with all the latest greatest stuff for the ISS flight controllers, and has the newest technology for the Houston control centers.

The orange display panels you see in the picture to the left are called “DVIS” (Digital Voice Intercommunication Subsystem – pronounced Dee-Viss) keysets, and are what the flight controllers use to talk to each other, the crew, and to other control centers. The keysets are part of a massive, custom built intercom system that connects everyone on console with the people supporting mission, both at JSC and at other control centers, including overseas. Each keyset has a touch sensitive plasma display with three columns and eight rows of buttons for a total of 24 “loops” that a flight controller can monitor all at one time. There are ten pages which can be customized for different missions, which is a significant improvement from the Apollo era keysets that were hard coded to limited comm paths. Flight controllers can also control volume and change pages and reconfigure individual loops.

Today, the DVIS keyset panels have been upgraded to what you see in this photo of the ISS Flight Director’s console (the light blue panels next to Flight Director Chris Edelen’s head). The new keysets feature the latest digital communication technologies, such as Voice-over-IP and user friendly interfaces that let you do things like control individual loop volume. Notice we also have fancy new light-up console placards on each of our consoles (the blue glowing things that say FLIGHT DIRECTOR, CAPCOM, ETHOS, etc). The person sitting at the right-center of the photo (you can just see the top of his head) is at the PLUTO console, which is where I sit when I’m in the FCR. I described what the PLUTO console does a bit in my previous post about the ISS. Yes, that was a shameless plug.

Payload Operations Center (2001-present)

The Payload Operations Center (POC – pronounced “pock”) is located at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. The POC helps plan payload science missions and talks directly to the ISS crew via “PAYCOM”, a console position similar to CAPCOM at Mission Control in Houston, Texas. The POC integrates research requirements between the scientists on the ground and the experiments and astronauts on the ISS. It coordinates research schedules across Canada, Europe and Japan, as well as remote telescience workstations in the United States. It also monitors the health and status of scientific instruments deployed on the space station.

SpaceX (2002-present)

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, is a space transport company in Hawthorne, California founded in 2002. SpaceX developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft, which is lifted into orbit by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Dragon is currently a cargo only vehicle, but is later planned to carry humans as early as 2015. In December 2010,SpaceX became the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft with the launch of the COTS Demo Flight 1 mission. SpaceX also became the world’s first privately held company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station (ISS) on the 25th of May 2012.

In 2006, NASA awarded the company a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract to design and demonstrate a launch system to resupply cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), though SpaceX designs, tests and fabricates the majority of its components in-house. SpaceX has also signed contracts with private sector companies, non-American government agencies, and the American military for its launch services. SpaceX is in the design stages of the “Falcon Heavy” launch system, which will be the most powerful rocket in the American inventory since the Apollo-era Saturn V, and can be used to send a Dragon spacecraft on lunar orbiting missions, or send a modified unpiloted Dragon on a Mars landing mission.

Thales Alenia Space (2005-present)

Located in Cannes France, Thales Alenia Space was established on June 1, 2005 by the merger of Alcatel Space and Alenia Spazio. This company has built modules for the International Space Station (ISS), notably the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLMs) that flew as cargo holders inside shuttle, and the Columbus module that is owned by the European Space Agency, ESA. They also helped with the design, development, integration and testing of Node 2 & Node 3 ISS modules, and the Cupola – the astronaut’s window on the bottom of Node 3 that looks down over the Earth. Thales Alenia Space has also become a player on the NASA programs “Commercial Orbital Transportation Services” (COTS) and “Commercial Resupply Services” (CRS), the latter aimed to deliver cargo to the ISS comercially. In June of 2009, Thales Alenia Space entered in Contract with Orbital Space Science for the supply of nine Pressurized Cargo Modules for the Cygnus vehicle, one of which will be utilized in the COTS demonstration mission. This is by no means the full compliment of projects this company has completed, so stop by their website to check them out. The photo here is from the wikipedia article on the subject since I couldn’t find a better one of their facility on their actual website.

Columbus Control Centre (2008-present)
The Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC) is located at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) facility in Oberpfaffenhofen (don’t ask me how to pronounce that!) near Munich, Germany. Col-CC is the Mission Control Center which is used to control the Columbus research laboratory, which was attached to the International Space Station (ISS) on February 11th, 2008. The control center is referred to as “Munich” when the astronauts call down from orbit, like JSC is referred to as Houston (probably because it’s easier to pronounce). The center is operated by the DLR, under contract from the European Space Agency (ESA) and EADS Astrium. Col-CC went into operation during the STS-122 Shuttle Mission, which delivered the Columbus module to the ISS.

Col-CC actually has two control rooms: one for real-time operations, and one for preparation activities, such as the training of controllers, simulations, etc. The second control room also acts as a backup for the first control room. There is also a backup control center on site at DLR Oberpfaffenhofen, but not located in the same building. The ATV Control Center in Toulouse, France receives communications services from Col-CC.

ATV Control Centre (ATV-CC) (2008-present)

The ATV Control Centre (ATV-CC) located at the Toulouse Space Centre (CST) in Toulouse, France. The center is responsible for planning and executing of the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) from launch to re-entry. ATV-CC works with the Columbus Control Center (Col-CC) in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, which provides ATV-CC with access to both the American TDRSS satellite network, and the European Artemis communication networks so it communicate with ATV and the International Space Station (ISS). ATV-CC coordinates not only with NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, but also with the Russian FKA Mission Control Center in Moscow, Russia as well as the ATV launch site at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.

The ATV itself is an unmanned resupply spacecraft developed by ESA that burns up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It has three times the payload capacity of Russia’s supply vehicle Progress, and helps resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with propellant, water, air, payloads and experiments. They also are utilized to reboost the ISS into a higher orbit. Since 2008, there have been 3 ATV launches: Jules Verne, Johannes Kepler and Edoardo Amaldi. The ATV program is planned to end after the fifth ATV is launched in 2014, but may be adapted into a 3-man crew vehicle to launch astronauts into space in the near future.

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Time Dilation

Many of us are familiar with the concept of time dilation, though we may not know it by that name.  Through the worlds of science fiction, we often read about the relativistic effects of traveling at or near the “cosmic speed limit” known as speed of light.  Many of you may not know, however, that time dilation actually occurs with respect to gravitational pull as well.  You may also not know that the effects of time dilation have been observed in experimental settings using atomic clocks.  In fact, the astronauts living and working onboard the International Space Station (ISS) get to experience both types of time dilation.

So what is time dilation?  Essentially, it is an effect predicted by the theory of relativity in which two objects moving relative to each other, or situated differently with respect to the pull of gravitational masses, experience an observable difference of time between them.  An atomic clock can actually be measured to tick at a different rate when compared to a second observer’s own atomic clock.  You may think that perhaps this is related to a mechanical difference between the clocks, or from the fact that signals take time to transfer back and forth, or even the fact that light itself takes time to reflect back and show the observers what they see.  This is not the case.  It is a natural phenomenon in our universe, explained by mathematics and tested through experimentation.

In relative velocity time dilation, a person approaching the speed of light would experience time at a slower rate than those observing the traveler.   In other words, the faster the relative velocity, the greater the magnitude of time dilation.  One could hop onboard a starship, travel for a few weeks, and arrive back at Earth to find that thirty years had passed by.  In a way it is like time travel, except you are limited to a one way trip.

In gravitational time dilation, observable time actually speeds up the further you get from the source of gravity.  A person at sea level would experience slower time than someone at the peak of Mount Everest.  Gravitational time dilation is also the direct cause of gravitational redshift.  Redshift is the process by which electromagnetic radiation (light, radio waves, microwaves, gamma waves, etc) originating from, or passing through, a high gravitational field is reduced in frequency when observed in a region of a weaker gravitational field.  There also exists a corresponding blueshift when moving in the other direction.

Since time slows down with increased gravity and increased velocity, this means that astronauts on the ISS experience two opposing effects of time dilation.  They are further away from the Earth, so their time speeds up.  They are also traveling at high velocity (17,000 mph (~27 500 km/h)), so their relative time is slowing down.  The effects of the relative velocity time dilation is actually stronger than the effects of the gravitational time dilation, so when the astronauts return to Earth after their 6 month stay, they have aged less than the folks in mission control that stayed on Earth.  The difference is about 0.007 seconds.

As you can see, this phenomenon can present a bit of a challenge for the science fiction author.  One must either choose to accept this as fact and apply them to the story, or come up with a way around them.  For sufficiently high speeds the effect is dramatic, and space travellers could leave on a light-speed mission, and return to Earth billions of years in the future.  In the Planet of the Apes and the Ender’s Game series, the authors chose to accept this limit as fact and apply it.  In other works of science fiction, such as Dune, Star Trek and Star Wars, they found ways around it.

In Star Trek, warp drive is a concept that uses a bubble of “normal time” to surround the spacecraft and allow them to get around the relativistic impacts of their faster than light travel, and continue to be able to interact with objects in “normal space”.  Star Wars uses “hyperspace,”  which is an alternative region of space coexisting with our own.  Entering hyperspace requires some sort of shield to protect the craft, and traveling through it allows the people to move from point to point faster than the speed of light, but they cannot interact with objects in “normal space.”.  Dune uses a concept that folds space at the quantum level and enables travelers to move from point to point instantaneously.

In my own writing I plan to take an approach closer to that of Star Wars, since multiple dimensional layers will be somewhat important to the plot. The idea of 11 dimensional space in M-Theory caught my attention, and so I began to wonder if travel through one of these different dimensions might make it possible to travel through time or space without the impacts of relativistic time dilation.  Travelers in my universe will shift into one of these dimensions assuming an effect similar to that of Hyperspace, where one slips put of Normal space into this alternate dimension in which they cannot communicate with, or interact with, normal space.  The exception of course would be gravity, since this seems to be one of the only constants throughout the multi-dimensional universe.  Gravity can also permeate the multi-verse, and has an effect on time travel, the idea being that the graviton particle is the most fundamental piece of life, the universe, and everything.  (And you thought it was 42 😉 )

Of course there are many holes and mathematical improbabilities associated with faster than light travel, but I find a universe where I can travel from place to place without having to worry about when I leave and arrive relative to my speed to be a lot more fun to write about.  I don’t want to believe that it is impossible for me to explore faster than the speed of light.  Of course there are also holes and issues with existing theories of relativistic time dilation, and the interactions of the microverse with the macroverse, and no matter how many times I hear people say something is impossible, I would rather think of it as improbable.  To say that we as humans have learned all that there is to know, and that we truly understand the universe we live in is a farce.  There is always something more to do and something more to learn.  If it can be imagined, it can in all probability be achieved.

After NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011, it left the United States without a domestic way to transport astronauts and cargo into space.  The International Space Station (ISS), of course, is up there 24-7, and funded until 2020.  It may even operate until 2028, but that dream can only continue with the continued transport of people and cargo to the ISS.  Right now for humans,  our only source for transportation is the Russian Soyuz.  Russia,  Japan and Europe were able to help us transfer cargo via ProgressHTV and ATV respectively.  But, until Dragon’s successful mission in May this year (2012), no cargo vehicles could return a significant volume of payloads to Earth.  Of course it doesn’t have the payload capacity of shuttle, but it is certainly a step in the right direction since Progress, HTV, and ATV all burn up on re-entry, and Soyuz has an extremely limited payload capacity.

Dragon is the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the ISS, and is a great leap in getting the United States a foot hold in manned space flight again.  Previously, only government entities had ever accomplished such a mission.  SpaceX is working to get a crewed version of Dragon, which would carry up to seven astronauts to the ISS, and potentially deep space destinations such as Mars.  Their target launch price for crewed flights is roughly estimated at $20,000,000 per seat, which is a significant contrast with the current Soyuz launch cost of $63,000,000 per seat.  Plus, this keeps that money here in the United States rather than investing overseas.  Dragon is expecting to begin flying people to space within the next few years.

So what else is coming for the future of U.S. space flight?  A lot actually.  There are at least 10 new vehicles in the makings, and most of them are commercial ventures though not all of them will go to the ISS.  One of the vehicles expected to start this year is XCOR’s Lynx.  The Lynx is a two passenger suborbital vehicle that will take humans and payloads on a half-hour flight and then return to the takeoff runway.  The Lynx can take off and return to Earth up to four times a day, and at ~$95,000 per seat it is relatively cost effective.  It can reach a suborbital alttude up to 100 km (330,000 feet).

Virgin Galactic’s has plans for its own two passenger suborbital spaceflight vehicle, known as SpaceShip Two.  While the Lynx uses its own rocket propulsion system to get to and from space, SpaceShip Two will be carried by a mothership known as WhiteKnightTwo.  At a cost of $200,000 for a seat, Shapeship Two will reach altitudes of about 100km (330,000 feet).  Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial operations in 2013 or 2014.

Dream Chaser is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s suborbital spacecraft.  It will carry seven astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, and will launch vertically atop a rocket but land on a runway like an airplane. Dream Chaser’s primary mission will be to dock with the International Space Station and carry both crew and cargo safely into space and back to Earth.  This space plane is expected be ready to begin operations as early as 2016.

Stratolaunch Systems is working on an air launch system to launch rockets into space from a carrier plane that would be the biggest aircraft in history.  The carrier craft will have a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters), and initially plans to send cargo and satellites into space.  Test flights are planned to start in 2015, with real launches in 2016.  Eventually, they hope to launch astronauts into space as well.

Bigelow Aerospace has a unique outlook on the future of space flight, and is working to design and build private expandable space stations using their inflatable technology.  In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow launched orbiting prototypes Genesis I and Genesis II and will eventually launch a module to expand the capabilities of the ISS.  They already have partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX to transport passengers and from Bigelow’s “space hotels.”   Of course the term space hotel is only a loose label that got applied since Bigelow’s founder is also in the apartment business.  Planned clientele is actually slated to include governmental and corporate entities interested in building an astronaut program or performing microgravity research.

Blue Origin is developing both suborbital (New Shepard) and orbital space craft (The Space Vehicle), and expects to contract with NASA to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.  These vehicles plan use reusable booster rockets, first perfecting them with their suborbital program and then moving on further into their orbital space program.  The Space Vehicle should be ready to begin commercial operations between 2016 and 2018.

Bigger and more established companies such as Boeing are keeping their foot in the door as well.  The CST-100 will carry up to 7 passengers  to and from the ISS and low Earth orbit.   Each capsule is designed to make up to 10 space flights, and operations are expected to begin in 2016.

All images copywrite their respective owners.

Robonaut 2

This past week I got to work with Robonaut 2 again (me working one of the R2 Ops). We got to pull out his taskboard, and though it was not the first time he had used it, it was the first time we used Task Panel B. The task panel is what we’re usign to teach him how to use different types of knobs and switches, so that when he’s able to move about freely inside and outside the space station, he will understand how to utilize the different buttons and knobs. It makes me think of the mobiles you put in baby cribs. 🙂 Here’s a prety cool video out there of him using Task Panel A the last time we did ops: R2 Operating a taskboard on the ISS.

In the back ground, a team of PLUTO flight controllers and Robonaut engineers work together to drive his hands to the right places and calibrate the robot to operate with the taskboard in space. The Robonauts we’ve learned how to use on the ground are of course calibrated for 1G (standard Earth gravity), and it is not a simple thing to teach the robot to now work in microgravity. You’d be surprised by all of the little subtle things that change without the complex effects of gravity on each of his individual motors and limbs.

As we drive the robot to these different places, the robot is learning. He has a very complicated vision set of 4 cameras that can pick out and recognize tools, and he will eventually be able to use things like drills, wrenches, etc. In addition to the cameras, he has an infrared sensor that allows him to judge distance. When he is fully calibrated for space and gets his legs some time next year, he’ll be able to freely move around the ISS and go out on EVAs (extravehicular activities, i.e. spacewalks) and judge for himself where things are.

– Robonaut’s Youtube channel.

– Robonaut’s homepage.

People are often surprised when I tell them that I work for NASA.  “Didn’t they cancel NASA?”  “Oh… they still have jobs?”  “What do you do without the space shuttle?”  Well, no we didn’t cancel NASA, yes they still have jobs, and there’s this other multi-billion dollar project in the manned space flight program known as the International Space Station, aka the “ISS”.  The ISS is the largest, most complex international systems engineering project ever constructed by mankind.  It includes partnerships from the United StatesRussiaCanadaJapan, and Europe.  Construction of this project began in 1998. It  is currently funded until 2020, and may operate until 2028.  There’s a lot of good info about it here on wikipedia.  There is also a pretty cool app in development about it with an interactive website.

Wow, you mean there’s this big space ship floating up there 24-7 and I didn’t know about it?

Yes.  It just doesn’t get as much hype as projects like the Shuttle cause hey, let’s face it, it’s really cool when things go boom and blast off into space on a big ball of fire.  Plus there’s less of an impending sense of doom for the news casters to focus on when reporting, too.  Bet you didn’t know China has a space station up there either.  Or a manned space vehicle for that matter.  In fact, they just launched a crew of 3 along with their first female astronaut to Tiangong 1 just yesterday, June 16th 2012.  They’re slated to arrive at the Tiangong 1 station Monday June 18th with a fully automated docking system.

So what do you do at NASA?

Well, I’m actually a flight controller.  I work under the call sign PLUTO, which stands for Plug-in Port Utilization Officer (notice that when you google that you can easily get 20,000 different versions of what the acronym stands for.  I promise this is the right one).  The name PLUTO is inherited from the flight controller’s original role, which was to maintain and coordinate changes to the U.S. segment of the electrical Plug-in Plan (PiP). The PiP is the tracking of portable electronic equipment, making sure equipment connected is compatible and does not violate constraints, and will not overdraw the power source. Along with this, PLUTO is responsible for maintaining the OPSLAN (Operations Local Area Network) and the JSL (Joint Station LAN). PLUTO has remote desktop administration and monitoring capability to the network from the ground, which includes remote desktop commanding for ROBONAUT activities. (You can actually find some photos of me on Robonaut’s home page if you look hard enough ;)) The PLUTO is also responsible for certain Station Developmental Test Objectives, or SDTOs during the mission, such as programming the Wireless Instrumentation System (WIS).  (Gee that looks just like what came out of Wikipedia!  Well, I wrote the entry, so I can copy it :P)

I wouldn’t recommend trusting everything you google about the OPSLAN and the JSL if you guys plan to look that stuff up.  I see an awful lot of outdated resources out there referencing REALLY old technology and control documents.  While we don’t have the latest and greatest stuff up there, it’s not as bad as some of those websites lead you to believe.  So why aren’t we using the latest greatest toys if we’re supposed to be so cutting edge?  Well, NASA has to prioritize and scrutinize to get the best bang for the buck.  When everything you fly has to be tested and modified to handle a weightless, radioactive environment, it’s a lot more expensive to buy new stuff.  For example, computer RAM is extremely susceptible to radiation bombardment.  And, imagine non-captured screws getting lost and floating around where they could damage electrical equipment or injure astronauts.  Additionally, many laptops these days have drop protection which, when an impact seems imminent, the laptop’s hard drive stops writing data and the read/write head is retracted.  That doesn’t help much when your laptop is in a constant state of free fall.  Neither do iPad accelerometers.  But hey, we still get to do tomorrow’s science today, even if it’s with a lot of yesterday’s technology.

In September, I’ll be moving over to start life as an Integration Systems Engineer (ISE, pronounced “ice”).  ISE is a specialist position that functions as the systems liaison between ISS and visiting vehicles that are berthed to the U.S. side of ISS. This includes HTVDragon, and Cygnus.  Here’s an interview by one of my coworkers that provides a pretty good overview of what I’ll be doing.  He talks about the first Dragon mission to the international space station.  SpaceX‘s Dragon is the first vehicle from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and is working on becoming a man-rated space vehicle in the near future.

These of course are not the only vehicles docking with the ISS.  Russia has two vehicles, Progress and Soyuz.  Progress is a cargo vehicle, and Soyuz flies 3 astronauts/cosmonauts at a time.  Presently, Soyuz is the only way to get people back and forth to the ISS, and depending on the number of crew, 1-2 Soyuz (3-6 crew) stay docked to the ISS at all times as “life boats” for them to return home in.  ATV is ESA’s cargo vehicle.  Note that Dragon and Soyuz are the only space vehicles that return to Earth intact.  The rest burn up on re-entry, and act as ISS trash disposal when they’re undocked.

What kind of science does the international space station do?

Well, the ISS is basically a big orbiting laboratory filled with everybody’s favorite lab rats, known as astronauts and cosmonauts.  There is a lot of research going on in medicine, education, physics, technology, biology and biotechnology, chemistry, robotics, earth and life sciences, and more.  You can learn a bit more about the different research and experiments we have going on at NASA’s homepage.  Did you know we have mice in space?

I hope this has been educational for you all!

So why should I care about NASA?  There aren’t any meteors coming any time soon, and I don’t get to go walk on the moon.  You guys get like 20% of the budget, right?  Shouldn’t we spend that on something else?

Well first of all, NASA is actually relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to other government programs and some of our nation’s spending habits, and it sure isn’t 20% of the U.S. budget.  We’d have mined all the H3 out of the moon and colonized the solar system by now if it were.  So how much is it really costing you?  Well, in 2012, our budget was set to 0.48% of the U.S. budget, or about 17.7 billion dollars.  Yes, that’s right, that’s less than 1%, not 48% with a typo.  Even at its peak in 1966 NASA did not hit 20%.  In fact, it was at around 4.41%, or about 33 billion in today’s dollars, and we used that to go to the moon.  The entire cost of Apollo program was roughly $136 billion in today’s dollars – including the construction of ships, paying employees, and sending people back and forth to the moon.  That puts a little perspective on what they’re asking us to do today with half the annual budget.  Plus, not all of that is dedicated to manned space either, and what IS dedicated to manned space is divided among all of the manned space program projects, such as crew exploration vehicle, partnering with commercial space endeavors, and the international space station.  And, consider this:  The nation spent $11.4 billion on Black Friday just last year.  That’s 64% of NASA’s budget spent in just one day.

So what has NASA ever done for me?  Obvious answers would be solar energy, GPS, long distance communications and cellular telephones, but what else is there?  NASA posts a lot about their commercial spinoffs here: http://spinoff.nasa.gov/index.html  These spinoffs impact the health industry, medicine, transportation, safety, the environment, and much more. Some examples include scratch resistant lenses on your glasses, water filtration systems, lightweight, compact, cordless tools, memory foam, and invisible braces.  Check it out, do a little research, learn something new. You might just be surprised 🙂

Talking to Astronauts

Had one of the more terrifying, but rewarding experiences of my career last week.  I was hooked up live with no encryption to S/G (space to ground) to talk to my crew on orbit.  It was a little intimidating, and there’s not a whole lot of training that people give you before you do these things other than: don’t be an idiot and remember there’s a delay… because they’re in space.  It’s funny what a difference it makes to talk to your crew on orbit versus talking to them on the ground.  On the ground, it’s just you and the astronaut. They’re regular people just like you in me.  In space, they’re a beacon. The world and everyone in that control center can hear everything you say, and you’re recorded in the books for all time.  I had mixed but positive reviews.  Crew enjoyed the conference, the guy on console with me told me I should be a news reporter, and the flight director told me I was talking kind of fast but hey, the crew kept up with me so that was ok.  I have an mp3 of the conference, but I haven’t been brave enough to listen to it yet.  Maybe tomorrow…

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