Friday, September 27, 2013

The difference between a fairy tale and a war story

Fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time…”
War stories begin, “There I was…”

My journey to become an Attitude Determination and Control Officer for the International Space Station will eventually be a war story, made up of thousands of experiences which will mold me into a successful flight controller [fingers crossed]. You may be surprised to hear me talk about my dream job in the vein of a war story, but spaceflight itself is a war story. The day to day life of supporting humans on orbit doesn’t sound like this…

“Once upon a time, I blasted off from Russia, got to the space station with no failures, spent 6 months onboard floating around with perfect execution of all tasks, and landed safely back in Russia. Oh, and I have no ill effects from 6 months on orbit!”

Space is a harsh place, far from a fairy tale. Our job as flight controllers is to reduce the war stories the crew experiences, and that means fighting the battles from the ground. We smoosh data into our brains at a fast pace, and when we run out of room up there we have procedures and analysis and timelines and flight rules and flight notes and change requests and anomaly reports and plan viewers and execution notes and operation notes and stowage notes and console logs to back us up. The bulk of these first few weeks at NASA has been class after class about where to find these operational products and how and when to use them. It’s a little overwhelming, even for a spreadsheet nut like myself.

But I can’t wait to feel more comfortable with all of this new knowledge. I want to embed all of this information, truly internalize it, in order to feel confident at my oral board checkouts. This journey will definitely be a challenge (already has been somewhat); but I am so proud that I was chosen to learn all of this data and that one day, once I prove myself, I will be responsible for controlling the International Space Station.

Yesterday I completed one of the first "big" checkouts in my journey. This "Crew Mastery" checkout is identical to the one given to astronauts (those designated MCS specialists) before their trip to ISS. I stepped through Loss of Attitude Control procedures, explained how Attitude and State are determined on the US segment and the Russian segment, detailed how all of the Attitude and State sensors work, stepped through a GNC failure and recovery, described which attitude controller configurations are used during vehicle dockings and grapples, etc....I feel a sense of relief to know that I have these basic concepts mastered. 

It feels like a long way off right now. I hope the war story has a good ending ;-)