Category Archives: Space

NASA - Mission Control and Flying the Shuttle

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to go through the mission control facilities here at Johnson Space Center. There is historic mission control from the Apollo and early shuttle days, space shuttle control, ISS control, a training/overflow room, and back rooms. I'm going to share some pictures with you and summarize the setup of mission control and operations.

First we were in historic mission control. This is the famous room seen in the photos of the Apollo 11 landing and made even more well known by the movie 'Apollo 13'. The room is relatively small with a visitor viewing gallery. Each station or console was responsible for a system or set of systems such as guidance, navigation, control, CAPCOM (capsule communicator), etc. Every console has a set of loop buttons. These loops can be thought of as conversations. Say the thermal guys need to talk to attitude control (ADCO) and maneuver the spacecraft so it can cool or heat properly. They would punch up a loop and start talking. Controllers listen to many loops simultaneously, but only talk on one at a time. Eventually all decisions are at the discretion of the flight controller. When a decision is made the CAPCOM (the only person who actually talks to the spacecraft) relays the message.

A little known fact is that those controllers in the 'front room' are not the only personell working on the mission control day to day. There are many 'back rooms' surrounding the control center in which more systems specialists look at various sub-systems and aspects of operation. They report to the front room system manager who then reports to flight control. This design of control is still used today. In addition to subsystem back rooms there are also people like geologists in back rooms that would request astronauts look at certain areas/rocks when on the moon.

Shuttle mission control is now sadly quiet after the recent retirement of the space shuttle after a great 30 year run. I've posted pictures of the shuttle control room before, so I'll save the space here and move onto the International Space Station (ISS) control room.

The ISS control room is similar to shuttle control with one major exception. The ISS is flown from the ground. With the shuttle and Apollo astronauts actually flipped switches and punched up computer programs to fly the vehicle. The ISS astronauts are free to work knowing that their orbit is controlled by the ground. The orbit of the ISS is occasionally boosted to combat continual orbital decay. The orientation of the station is also changed for thermal, scientific, and debris avoidance. Much of the maneuvering is done by speeding up, slowing down, and rotating giant gyroscopes on the station. These moves require no propellant, but there are technical issues (that's for another time though).

There is also a training/overflow control area, but that area is currently undergoing a few remodeling projects.

On a side note I was able to fly the shuttle simulator before it is dismantled. We started at 10,000 ft. on landing approach. I came up just short of the runway the first time, but got it on the ground the second time (even if it wasn't a pretty landing).

NASA - What's New

Well a lot has happened since my first week down at NASA.  I've watched the final launch and landing of the shuttle with STS-135, visited historic and current mission control, watched a dry run of the desert rats program, and even got to shake the hand of robonaut!

The launch of the shuttle was amazing, even just watching it on the big screen with other employees cheering.  Once they were in orbit we recorded a wake up message to be played to them during one of the flight days.  The video is embedded below.  Skip ahead towards 1:13 and you'll see all of us.  I'm in a denim shirt near a guy in a bright red shirt.  We all went into work at 4AM to watch the landing, then went to Waffle House for some breakfast.

Morpheus still hasn't lit up since I've been here due to the fire investigation and more recently some RF interference issues.  Hopefully those are resolved soon and the tests can continue.  My work on writing a software package has shifted slightly and I'm writing a plotting package.  When I give my exit presentation in a few weeks I'll post it on here so you can get a more detailed idea of what is going on, but in general my software takes huge amounts of flight data and divides it up to plot it.  We are already using the software to look for what is causing some drift in the inertial navigation system!  I'll try to do better about posting more frequent, short updates over the next couple of weeks before I head back to Norman and the blog will likely go back to interesting scientific thoughts or updates on teaching.

NASA - Week 1

This week I began my work at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC).  My job is to write software regression test protocols for the guidance, navigation, and control software on a lander prototype.  We normally refer to the software as the GN&C package.  It basically tells the flight computer and flight computer software (FCS) what to do as far as maneuvering the vehicle.

The vehicle I'm working on is called Morpheus and will with any luck be the next machine we place on the moon.  It may take some instrument up after a few more years, but only time and funding will tell.  Below is a picture of the lander with me for scale.

I encourage you to also follow the Morpheus blog from NASA (here).  Videos of tests will be posted there, but I'll also repost.  The first few tests the lander was tied down to the ground.  Then it was hung from a tether and allowed to ascend and land on its own.  Some of the tests worked well, but others had problems as is in the video below.  Most of those issues have been solved and we are now just working on some control lag problems.

More tests were planned very soon, but the rocket started a fire in the test field and we can not light the engine again until the investigate has cleared up, hopefully by early July.  Until we do more field tests I'm working in the NSTL (Navigation Systems Testing Laboratory) trying to do regression analysis.  In general fixing a bug in software can break other features.  When the software is flying a very expensive lander with around half a ton of explosive rocket fuel that is a very bad thing.  I'm using spacecraft simulation code to prove that certain changes don't cause issues with the flight and trying to develop software modification protocols that allow rapid updates.

The icing on the cake was really my first day when I happened to hear that Gene Kranz (the flight controller for many years, made famous in the movie 'Apollo 13') was speaking.  I attended his lecture and it was amazing.  He really has the passion that I love seeing in people.  Mr. Kranz was excited for what our generation can do, but concerned that we may currently lack the leadership to do it.  I agree completely with his statement and all of us in the room are striving to learn those vital skills that he talked about.  The Apollo missions would have never left the ground without leadership, teamwork, and persistance.  While we may have many times the computer power of the 1960's I'm worried we have fewer of these important personal qualities.

Wisconsin Meteor - A Great Time to Play with Radar Data

As I'm sure you've heard by now last week, what is believed to be a meteor, passed into our atmosphere and exploded over Wisconsin.  The light was seen as far away at St.Louis, MO and was captured on a camera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The video frames have been played on most news networks and are available everywhere online.
As you can imagine the 911 call center (actually 911 call centers over 6 states) was/were flooded with reports of the light, the sonic boom, and other observations.  The NWS also noticed a new trail appear on the radar.  I downloaded the level 2 data and plotted it up.  First we'll look at the reflection.

You can see the trail in the SW corner of Iowa county.  (KDVN radar)  Next is just a blow up of this image.  The meteor path was from west to east.  According to NASA scientists the meteorite was likely not from the current Gamma Virginids meteor shower, but a rock from the asteroid belt.
Next it would be interesting to look at this trail in 3D.  Using level II radar data this is possible.  The next images show this from several different angles.   The directions are labeled so it's easy to get bearings on which way you're looking.  If you notice the trail is sloping down slightly towards the SE.

The average hight for the event was right around 24,000-25,000 ft.  Looking at the plot you can see how small the plot was and how large the strongest reflector in the center is! A few back of the envelope calculations can be done using basic trig to determine some interesting things.  You can try this yourself.  I've posted a link to the radar data at the bottom and a link to a website where you can download a 21 day trail of GR2Analyst.  Just open the data and start slicing it!

Finally a sample of the meteorite has been recovered at is being examined currently.  There should be many other samples in the area also and hunters are already out looking for them.  With all this in mind you should remember it's not that uncommon for meteorites to enter the atmosphere.  Washing machine size chunks of rock are not abnormal and they burn up in the atmosphere.  If any material makes it to the ground it's probably never seen.  (Since most of the Earth is covered in water most probably hit there.)
Below: Scientists prepare a sample of the meteorite for a test

Gibson Ridge Software
Data for This Radar Scan

Constellation Cut?

With the release of the proposed budget science education saw a nice boost in funding, but science programs saw cuts. NASA was one of the most hurt agencies. This was simply upsetting as we know how weak we are as a nation when it comes to science. (I've often been scared when visiting a medical doctors office and hearing the doctors confession of barely making it through calculus one.)

Constellation was supposed to get space exploration back on our minds and provide more technological advancements. Many of the modern items we enjoy have their roots in the space program. Our technology has also advanced greatly since the 60's and 70's. The computer on the Apollo missions ran at a whole 2MHz and would shudder if it met a modern graphing calculator, or my iPhone which is over 300 times more powerful! (And about 69.9 pounds less in weight)
Please read, modify, and send the letter below to your representative! Unless you are also a student on a PhD track you might want to change that bit, but otherwise you could use it pretty much unmodified if you wish.