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!