NASA’s Newest Flight Control Room

by Chris Bergin

A personal impression – by James Oberg.

As NASA officials, veteran flight directors, and the news media jostled each other to observe the inauguration ceremony of a new control room at NASA’s “Mission Control” in Houston, I noticed one small subset of the room’s inhabitants who appeared to be paying absolutely no attention to the disturbances.

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Their attention was far away, off the planet in fact. They were the on-duty flight controllers who were even in these moments monitoring the space station and its crew, considering the impact of a short list of technical problems on future crew activity, and looking ahead for possible new troubles and consequent required procedural changes. They knew there was a noisy ceremony going on, but it was way down on their priority list for attention.

Lots of things had changed since the earliest days of NASA Mission Control, first at Cape Canaveral and then, since June 1965, in ‘Building 30’ on the Johnson Space Center (JSC) southeast of Houston. The technology of communication and computing had undergone many generations of improvements. The workforce, originally mostly white men, had become diversified culturally and ethnically. The smell of cigarette smoke and burnt coffee grounds had vanished from the air.


But the professionalism of the controllers, their powers of internal concentration and external insight, had remained rock solid, several speakers at the ceremony stressed. And I knew that to be true because it had been my own good fortune to serve among them.


Now here I was attending the ceremony to re-open ‘Flight Control Room #1’, ‘FCR-1’ (pronounced ‘ficker-one’). It was a room where I, among more than a thousand other colleagues over four decades, had once served. But I wasn’t here as a nostalgic veteran – my role was as a correspondent for NBC News, my media client. However, unlike the single-minded controllers now on duty, I did have some difficulty avoiding distraction and keeping these roles separate – until I finally decided to give up and let the mental currents merge.


NASA’s first ‘Flight Director’


The highlight of the presentations was a short speech by Christopher Kraft, NASA’s first ‘flight director’ for human space missions. In 1961, at the age of 34, he was assigned the task of defining how a ground team would monitor, advise, and protect astronauts on space missions. He did so – and recently wrote a book about it.


Standing in front of the giant viewing screen at the front of the room, Kraft tried to summarize his own experiences. ‘There’s been a lot of joy here, and a lot of tragedy here,’ he stated thoughtfully. ‘I was sitting at a console in this very room when three men died at Cape Canaveral,’ he elaborated, referring to the Apollo-1 fire of January 1967.  ‘I’ve been frightened to death in here,’ he continued, ‘and I’ve seen people waving flags in here.’


What he could still see, as he gazed out over the crowd of celebrants and the smaller cadre of flight controllers who were even as he spoke paying him less attention than their own computer displays, was the operational legacy of the principles he had pioneered. As a first step, he had defined who was supposed to be in charge.


‘My first rule,’ he recounted, ‘was what the Flight Director says is what we want to do.’ He recalled the occasions in early years when high NASA officials, sitting in the back rows as observers, had kept telling him what his team should be doing. He refused, adding in hindsight, ‘They could fire me once I walked out the door, but while I was on duty I had the last word.’ And he, and his 70-odd successors, and their teams, were true to this rule.


They had performed these roles in a small bunker at Cape Canaveral and then in the two FCRs in Houston (FCR-2 on the building’s top floor will never be remodeled – it is a National Historic Monument due to its role in the Apollo-11 landing). Then in the mid 1990’s NASA built an annex to house the ‘White FCR’ (which now controls all shuttle missions) the ‘Blue FCR’ (where the space station had been controlled until last week), while converting another room in the original building to a training facility often called the ‘Red FCR’. And now the ‘Blue FCR’ has been retired temporarily before reassignment to another function.


Filling in the Trench, and Replacing It


Among the physical changes to FCR-1 between its last use to control a shuttle mission ten years ago (and use in later years as a monitoring room for science operations) and the transition back to operational control this month was a removal of the step-wise floor layout in which each row farther from the front screen was elevated two feet over the one in front (all rows are now at the same level). Also, the specializations of the consoles were swapped around a lot, although the Flight Director position remained near the center of the room.


These rearrangements had eliminated one of the most famous subsections of the original room, and the place where I had worked my missions here – the ‘Trench’.


The very front row of consoles, and the walkway between them and the next higher row, had become known as the ‘Trench’ way back in Gemini days, thanks to a colorful comment by an even more colorful flight controller named John Llewellyn. The region contained the most ‘active’ specialties, those involving the spacecraft’s trajectory through space and the hardware for controlling that path (Llewellyn was a ‘RETRO’, an expert in calculating the path for return to Earth).


But the shuffling of specialists in the new layout placed a few engineering specialists in the center of the front row, and even tagged the public affairs office commentator at the right end of the row (behind a low partition so his live commentary would be less distracting to neighboring controllers). The space station trajectory position was moved back to the third row, and although the specialists I met there did remember the name and claim to fame of the original ‘Trench’, it makes no architectural sense to refer to the new location with that classic name. Sadly, the ‘Trench’ of Apollo and Shuttle days is gone.


But an even more interesting section has been added to the room, and its history may match that of the ‘Trench’ for colorfulness, guts, and glory. It’s called the ‘Gemini’ area, and the need for its dedicated console space was a major factor in justifying the transfer of the space station team from the ‘Blue FCR’ where they had worked since 1998 to the refit ‘FCR-1’. The expansion from 16 rather bulky consoles to the 20 compact consoles of the new facility will make team operations more efficient, and especially in the ‘Gemini’ row.


‘Gemini’ has, as its name implies, two ‘super-consoles’, with mythologic call signs ‘Atlas’ and ‘Titan’. Besides being the names of the rocket boosters for the Mercury and Gemini manned spacecraft of the 1960’s, they are names of powerful Greek demigods.


The men and women who work these new consoles certainly invoke images of such power. From these two seats, two people can do the work of up to eight other flight controllers during low-activity periods. The controllers know how to monitor the systems, make them safe in contingency situations, and call in specialists as needed. This is a safe operating mode because the space station, unlike earlier short-term up-down space missions, is in a stable cruise mode and there usually is time to staff up for sudden emergencies.


The concept was developed several years ago, and allows a minimum staffed shift to operate with a Flight Director, a crew communicator (the ‘CAPCOM’, an active astronaut), and the two ‘Gemini’ systems controllers. It saves money, saves family lives, and reduces ‘burnout’ from too many uneventful duty tours. More than half the time, now, FCR-1 will be operating at this economical staffing level.


But that’s only possible if senior operations specialists step up to the training challenge of mastering a broad range of technical systems, and sign on for a two-year tour as an ATLAS or a TITAN. And, I realized as I looked around the dedication ceremony and the people attending it, it is possible because of the cultural heritage that has been passed on, successfully, to the current generation of flight controllers.

Sidebar — NASA fact sheet:

‘Gemini’ reduces staffing for real-time International Space Station (ISS) support by consolidating six system disciplines into two positions. One position, call sign TITAN (Telemetry, Information Transfer, and Attitude Navigation), is responsible for Communication & Tracking (CATO), Command & Data Handling (ODIN), and Motion Control Systems (ADCO).

The other position, call sign ATLAS (Atmosphere, Thermal, Lighting and Articulation Specialist), is responsible for Thermal Control (THOR), Environmental Control & Life Support (ECLSS), and Electrical Power Systems (PHALCON). ATLAS is also responsible for monitoring Robotics (ROBO) and Mechanical Systems (OSO) heaters, as those consoles are not supported during the majority of Gemini shifts.

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