MSFC bringing long-term experience to the return of US crewed spaceflight

by Chris Bergin

One of NASA’s biggest facilities, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), is bringing its vast experience into play for the long-awaited return of US domestic crew launch capability. The center’s Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC) has been conducting reviews and running sims associated with the Demo-2 (DM-2) mission that is scheduled to launch at the end of this month.

While most fans of the space program are well aware of the key control centers such as Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control Center (LCC) and the Flight Control Rooms at the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center (MCC), Marshall’s role has a deep history that ranges back to Shuttle missions and continued with the continuous human presence on the International Space Station.

The HOSC is a two-story building located on the east side of the Marshall Center. During a Shuttle launch, the Engineering Console Room on the second floor received data from the vehicle, displayed on more than a dozen workstations. The HOSC was linked with KSC, JSC and Shuttle propulsion system contractor plants, receiving more than 11 million measurements to be assessed by teams of experts in the support center.

While the data stream during the shuttle era consisted of no more than one megabit per second, the support center will receive more than 25 times that amount of data for Space Launch System (SLS) launches. That SLS support center room has received a major upgrade to be ready for the 2021/22 launch of Artemis-1.

The SLS support room at MSFC – via NASA

Marshall also has a dedicated room for the ISS called the Payload Operations and Integration Center, which runs 24 hours a day, as it has during the lifetime of the orbital outpost. It was also involved with the payloads on the Shuttle missions in coordination with their trips to the Station.

This Control Center links researchers and developers from around the world with their experiments and astronauts. It was also a key point of contact with international partners and their control rooms associated with the ISS, such as ESA, Roscosmos and JAXA.

Marshall’s ISS support – via NASA

Now, the HOSC is part of the next generation of US astronauts, not just with SLS, Orion and the Artemis missions, but also the Commercial Crew Program.

The opening crewed launch will be SpaceX’s Demo-2 (DM-2) mission, scheduled to launch from KSC’s 39A, adding yet more synergy to the control center’s role that included being involved with STS-135 that also launched from 39A – the last crewed mission to launch from US soil.

DM-2’s Doug Hurley flew with Atlantis and will fly again – alongside Bob Behnken – on the Crew Dragon, with the HOSC watching the data, alongside KSC, JSC and SpaceX’s own “MCC-X” in California.

STS-135 and DM-2

Marshall’s role with DM-2 has already begun ahead of the launch, with the Center’s Human Exploration Development & Operations Office supporting the Commercial Crew Program with engineers that have helped review critical design and development documentation. This will prove to be a key role ahead of the milestone Flight Readiness Review (FRR) that will formally approve the path to launch.

The team is also helping to provide oversight to safety standards for the spacecraft and verifying data.

“The Commercial Crew Program has challenged the traditional way of developing human spaceflight launch vehicles by shifting the way we think,” said Bobby Watkins, manager of the Human Exploration Development & Operations Office at Marshall. “This is a huge moment for NASA and its partners, and we are proud at Marshall to be a small part of this monumental mission.”

The team has already conducted several simulations in the HOSC, and will continue to do so in preparation for launch.

During the simulations, participants use headsets and voice loops to communicate with the NASA and SpaceX flight control teams.

Due to certain restrictions associated with Covid-19, a lot of the work has been conducted via telework. This has impacted on other related centers such as JSC, which is closed to employees other than those working on mission-critical efforts.

With DM-2 more than qualifying for such critical requirements, the HOSC will be staffed during the mission. However, for the sims, the teams mostly worked remotely.

“Using the HOSC for the simulations protected our employees by not having to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Steve Gaddis, launch vehicle deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program. “This recent sim makes the excitement all the more tangible – especially for the team here at Marshall.”

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