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Universal Constants in Moscow, Russia

I spent the last week or so in Moscow as part of a team discussing upcoming vehicle traffic to the International Space Station. We meet twice a year with our Russian counterparts (in Houston during springtime and Moscow during late summer/early fall) to work together on plans, review recent tests or anomalies and agree on updating processes for data exchange. This being my first trip to Moscow it was also a chance to see the Mission Control Center Moscow (MCC-M) and understand the mechanics of their mission control concept on a more personal level. 

Posing for a photo outside of Mission Control Center Moscow, in the town of Korolyov. 

Moscow's Mission Control Center is located in the town of Korolyov, renamed in 1996 to honor the "Chief Designer" of Russia's space program. Like many buildings in Moscow, there were no large signs indicating flight controllers were inside controlling the ISS.  The picture on the left above shows the extent of signage on the building! For lunch we ventured next door to a seemingly abandoned building - the only sign of life was a couple overflowing flower boxes. Inside it seemed like a quiet office building, but my travel companions led us upstairs to a friendly little Russian-cuisine restaurant. We enjoyed a "Business lunch" (basically a combo lunch in the US) with salad, soup, bread, a main dish and hot tea - all for about $5 or so. My Cyrillic training in college and at NASA came in handy when attempting to read the menu ;-)

Overall, it was a very interesting feeling being welcomed into this place – full of history and not that long ago an intellectual powerhouse of the cold war - a race to the stars between Communism and Capitalism.

The Mission Control building itself was bland but well-appointed – the hallways lined with polished brass paneling and the floor made of a blush stone. The entrance included a grand hall with large chandeliers, but they were never turned on. Periodically digital displays with the incrementing GMT hinted at the modern work done here. Even though the Russian vehicles, Soyuz and Progress, have been flying for 50+ years, there are constantly new challenges when flying to an International Space Station. It’s a destination full of foreign hardware, modern sensors, and radically different cultural risk postures and operating procedures.

An installation near MCC-M depicting the cooperation of the Apollo/Soyuz Project. Also - that pizza place in the background wasn't bad!

Our colleagues are always warm – and even more so on their own turf. Without skipping a beat they gushed greetings in perfect English and offered handshakes and hugs as we got settled in the conference room. With the help of an interpreter, we exchanged pleasantries and commiserated over the jet lag induced when traveling halfway around the world. The weather was a perfect 75 degrees and we all joked about our friends and family back in Houston sweating in the near 100-degree heat!  

After our first day of meetings wrapped up, one of my colleagues offered to give me a tour of MCC-M. In general, the setup was similar to MCC-H (Mission Control Center Houston). There were “big boards” in the front of the room with projections of the ISS’s orbit and other key parameters, there were consoles and loops, paperwork and references.  

On the floor of Mission Control Center Moscow!

But there were differences too! Flight controllers here work 25-hour shifts – 8:30am until 9:30am the next morning. This scheme reduces handover miscommunications but presents its own set of challenges. In general, Russian flight controllers only receive telemetry when the ISS passes over a Russian ground site. The rest of the time is spent working tasks back in the office or napping. Mission controllers in Houston receive almost continuous telemetry thanks to a constellation of communication satellites. This allows us to also monitor the most important Russian telemetry pieces and alert our Russian counterparts if we see an issue.

Communication is also different in the Russian version of mission control – systems flight controllers (similar to my position in Houston) only monitor a handful of communication loops. In Houston, we are encouraged to minimize “over the air” conversations and instead “put them on the loops”. This is because the communication loops are constantly recorded and can be replayed for any number of reasons – the most serious of course is some sort of accident or mistake. Because of this, we monitor lots of loops at once, on the order of 15-20. Russians, however, rely on “over the air” conversations in their own control room and only use the loops to monitor the astronauts’ conversations on space-to-ground, talk to their US counterparts (hard to do over the air ;-) and to monitor their version of a Flight Director loop.

The current room used to control ISS in Moscow was originally designed to control the Buran spacecraft - a nearly identical copy of the Space Shuttle that only ever flew 1 orbital test flight. My colleague pulled out a dusty nameplate from under the console and explained that this was originally the Buran's "steering system" console. One of the test articles is situated at VDNKh next to an adorable playground modeled after several Russian space vehicles!

And even though MCC-M, or "TsUP" in Russian (pronounced like "soup" with a little "t" sound at the beginning) is in a Moscow suburb, there are echos of the Russian's love of space all around town. 

Monument to the Conquerors of Space

Cosmonautics and Aviation Center

Detsky Mir children's mall
Collaborating with completely different cultures on a project as big and complicated as the International Space Station is absolutely not without challenges - but these trips and meetings are a chance to validate the notion that we are more alike than different. Orbital mechanics, physics and propulsion work just the same in Moscow as the US. And it was clear all of us would rather spend our time focusing on universal constants and engineering love languages than any cultural or political differences.


  1. Hey April super cool. Did you happen o any Russian watches form the Russian space agency? I had a replica Soviet military army watch that a buddy picked up for me just before the breakup of the soviet union. I have seen Soviet navy, army and Air Force watches. I wore the army watch for years, the (instructions were in Russian) and loved it. I have been looking for a Russian space agency men's watch for years. Like if you saw one, I woudl sure pay for the cost of shipping etc. I mean, if you brought it home for me of course.

    1. Hi Rick! I did see lots of "vintage" Soviet watches and other trinkets but they all looked like poor quality reproductions! Sorry!


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