Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ad astra per aspera

"A rough road leads to the stars."


48 years ago today, they climbed into the command module perched atop a Saturn IB rocket. 

It was just a test. 

In a coincidental twist of fate I found myself in almost the same place as those flight controllers 48 years ago - in a test, or a "sim" in NASA speak. No, we weren't preparing a crew for launch, but we were sustaining 6 crewmembers in concert with our European Space Agency partners. As the simulation models spooled up all of the players gathered on the loops for a prebrief. 

"COL Flight, Houston Flight on ISS AFD 2." No response.

"COL Flight, Houston Flight on ISS AFD 2." Again, no response. 

"Houston Flight, COL Flight on ISS FD 2, we are not hearing you on ISS AFD 2."

I couldn't help but think back to the Apollo 1 plugs out test. After some communication problems between the operations and checkout building and launch complex 34 Gus Grissom remarked, "How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?" 

Today's sim was eerily similar. I was just waiting for, "How can we fly a multi-billion dollar International Space Station if we can't even talk across continents?!"

The Flight Director called on communication specialists to rectify the situation, and eventually we established good comm on all the voice loops, including between Houston and Munich. I guess talking between continents seems much more benign than talking to the crew about to launch on a spacecraft's first test flight. 

But here's the thing about space: it's hard, sometimes unpredictable, incredibly unforgiving. It was in 1967 when Grissom, White, and Chaffee suited up for a plugs out test, and it is now, when international crewmembers meet together on the most complex machine ever built. It's an amazingly rewarding job, but the margin for error is infinitesimally small. It requires the right words, the right decision, the right coordination, the right diligence, the right forward plan, all at the right time. No room for "oopsies" or "takebacks" in this business. 

As much as I cringe on sim days (because I know my brain is going to be working in overdrive), I always feel a sense of relief afterwards. I always learn something, I always see something I didn't expect to happen, and I always feel accomplished that I was able to maintain calm and push through the (sometimes unrealistic) number of failures. I always had a profound respect for the men and women in mission control, but now that I'm here I realize that respect is just the tip of the iceberg. We all practice so much for the worst possible scenarios, and so much is required to be a "certified" flight controller. 

I had no idea it would be this hard - but I'm glad it is. 

Here I am after today's sim, manning the "HAWKI" console. 2 mice, 2 keyboards, and 6 monitors.