EGS Integration Console in the middle of Artemis 1 countdown deliberations

by Philip Sloss

The NASA and Jacobs engineers staffing the Integration Console will be literally and figuratively in the center of the final discussions to clear the Orion/Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle for its inaugural Artemis 1 launch. Sitting in the middle of the main Firing Room at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) Launch Project Engineers will work with teams sitting around them and others around the country during the final countdown to help decide when the spacecraft and launcher are ready to fly for the first time.

While the Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS) team oversees the new computer system managing the final countdown, the project engineers from EGS and prime test and operations support contractor Jacobs will discuss and troubleshoot any unexpected behavior of the new launch vehicle and upgraded spacecraft. The Integration Console engineers are also supervising revisions to the baselined countdown procedures and launch commit criteria as EGS prepares to receive the final Artemis 1 vehicle hardware and begin integration for launch.

Integration Console in the middle of the firing room and countdown discussion

Much of NASA’s infrastructure in Launch Complex 39 at KSC was modified to support SLS and Orion launch activities, and the Launch Control Center adjacent to the center’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is where many of the final preparations will be managed. Firing Room 1, dedicated as the Young-Crippen Firing Room in tribute to the flight crew of the first Space Shuttle mission, will again serve as the primary command and control center as it did during the Apollo and Shuttle Programs.

The engineers staffing the Integration Console in Firing Room 1 will be in the middle of discussions about issues that come up during the final countdown for Artemis 1 — the first integrated launch of NASA’s SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft. At the head of the console, Launch Project Engineers will be one of the main groups of people who will decide when Artemis 1 is ready to fly.

Post-Shuttle studies and planning took a new look at the equipment and layout of the control systems and the work environment in the firing rooms. One thing the team decided early on was to not carry forward consoles and layouts and processes from the Shuttle program just because it had existed before. Likewise, they did not bar themselves from carrying forward things from Shuttle that truly worked.

“One of those good carryovers is that we realized during Shuttle that it was a very good idea to have the Integration Console personnel, which is made up of three very, very integrated groups,” Anton Kiriwas, one of the Launch Project Engineers, said in a recent interview with NASASpaceflight.

“This has been a good mix of trying to capture all the good lessons learned from Shuttle but at the same time looking to make this program more efficient going forward. We [approached] it with fresh eyes, and one of [those] things was to look at the function we have within the firing room. And from a philosophical perspective, [the Integration Console is] very much in the center of everything.”

Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

(Photo Caption: As seen from the Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson’s position in the firing room, Integration Console team members are situated in the middle of the lower level. In front and above the lower level from this point of view, the NASA Test Director and the test conductors for the ground systems, launch vehicle, and spacecraft are positioned in between at consoles a level below the Launch Director and “management row.”)

During earlier programs, most of the consoles were arranged in rows called horseshoes based on how the console rows were arranged. For Artemis, the consoles are arranged in a square layout with the Integration Console positions in the middle.

The new arrangement was meant to emphasize the relationship of the Integration Console to the other positions. Mainly staffed with project engineers, the group will be in the middle of any discussions needed to troubleshoot and resolve issues that come up during the countdown.

“We don’t actually get up and physically walk around to interface with the other folks,” Phil Weber, Senior Technical Integration Manager for EGS and Lead Launch Project Engineer (LPE) for the Artemis 1 countdown and launch, explained. “We are kind of the hub in the center of the wheel, if you will, and it’s really meant to just set that mental image to everybody in the room. And so it sets that tone, but we actually communicate through the headsets over the nets.”

Kiriwas added, “Back in Shuttle, they were called ‘horseshoes’ at the time, but they were all facing [in one] direction. We went through several studies to go look at exactly how many people needed to be at each console, which functions need to be there, which disciplines need how many people, to work all of that out as we were developing the ground systems and the vehicle systems.”

“So [the new design] puts [those other consoles] in a very tight, coordinated manner, not because they’re turning around and talking to somebody across the cluster to them but, again, it’s that mental image that this team is working very closely together on whatever their discipline systems are. And then we [the Integration Console engineers], when they need to go coordinate with one of those other clusters, they’re going to be working through us; they’re going to be working through the Integration Console and the test management row to go do so.”

Project engineers coordinate troubleshooting

Multiple sets of project engineers staff the central Integration Console, which reports to the persons in charge of the countdown through the senior Launch Project Engineer.

“So we have the LPEs, which are three of us,” Kiriwas explained. “We also have OPEs (Operations Project Engineers) that are supporting us, and we’ve also got contractor personnel, TPEs (Test Project Engineers), that are supporting as well. And that’s kind of our Integration Console plus GLS (Ground Launch Sequencer).”

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

(Photo Caption: NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden addresses the Space Shuttle launch team in Firing Room 4 on July 8, 2011, shortly after the final Shuttle launch. The layout of the “horseshoe” shaped rows of consoles was changed for Artemis; in the Shuttle firing room layout, the Integration Console was situated at the back of the room, to the left of the Shuttle Atlantis flag on the far back wall in this image.)

The LPEs are the point of contact for the Integration Console project engineer groups, which also includes a Ground Integration Engineer. “Going through those, the Operations Project Engineers are basically LPEs,” Kiriwas said. “The difference between an LPE and an OPE is basically who is directly interfacing with the NASA Test Director and the Launch Director. We funnel it all through one of us depending on which problem you’re talking about. But those OPEs are always in the background along with the TPEs. And the only difference between those two is civil servant versus contractor.”

“Our Ground Integration Engineer is the one responsible for helping us as we work through a problem [to] understand if this is being affected by some ground support equipment, if the anomaly is going to affect some ground support equipment, if there’s something we can do to work through by modifying the ground support equipment, those kind of things,” Kiriwas added. “The functions of the OPEs and TPEs are usually focused on the vehicle stack itself.”

“And again GLS being the one who coordinates and directs all of the automated launch countdown functions as we go through terminal count, we wanted to keep them very very close to us, and we found that has worked during Shuttle,” he also said. “Carrying it on now and executing some of the simulation training events that we’ve already done, we’ve seen that it’s working now as well.”

The project engineer positions retained some of their names from Shuttle. “We actually carried those same call signs over from Shuttle, and so GLS is consistent with the Ground Launch Sequencer we had in Shuttle,” Weber noted.

“The OPE back then was Orbiter Project Engineer; we don’t have an orbiter any more, so we changed it to Operational Project Engineer. And the TPE was Test Project Engineer, and it still is today. The one we had to change was SPE; in Shuttle, it was the Shuttle Project Engineer, and again that’s sort of the console chief of the whole group. It’s not a Shuttle, and so it became an LPE for Launch Project Engineer.”

Within the launch team, the NASA Test Director and the test conductors are responsible for launch preparations during the final countdown; the project engineers get involved when an issue comes up.

Credit: NASA/Cory Huston.

(Photo Caption: In the blue shirt, Launch Project Engineer Anton Kiriwas is seen during a propellant loading simulation in Firing Room 2 on April 12, 2019. Firing Room 1 will be the primary launch control room for Artemis 1, with Firing Room 2 being used for members of the support team.)

Weber added, “The Launch Director is the one in charge and responsible for us to execute the launch, so she’s at the top of the pyramid for the launch control team, and that includes the prime team in the prime Firing Room and also support personnel, support launch team members that may be over in Firing Room 2 or off-site at another center, for example. She primarily interfaces to the Mission Management Team, which is a higher-level agency group. It includes the program managers, the mission managers, safety [managers], chief engineer; you [also] have [the technical] authority level, the ESD (Exploration Systems Development) level SE&I (Systems Engineering and Integration) folks.”

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson is the Artemis 1 Launch Director.” Below Charlie is where the NASA Test Directors are, the NTD, and they’re basically in charge of the room,” Weber explained. “They’re responsible for the people in the room and the hardware and the test team discipline and how we actually execute the launch.”

“And then below them you have the test conductors: there’s the OTC, which is the Orion Test Conductor, the STC is the SLS Test Conductor, and then the GTC is the Ground Test Conductor. Each of those test conductors are working the detailed procedure and assigning the kick-off steps to the individual console operators in the room. And so that’s how the nominal operations get executed in the room.”

“Our team at Integration really gets engaged when there’s some sort of an anomaly, a non-conformance, and basically we engage at that point,” Weber added. “The LPE is the lead of that Integration Console team and is responsible to communicate up to the Launch Director and the NASA Test Director.”

“And so any time they are making a decision to go implement some troubleshooting steps or anything like that, the NTD will ask the LPE if we agree with the approach and then we give verbal concurrence over the net that we do or don’t.”

“Ideally, we want to be the most bored people in the Firing Room,” said Tony Bartolone, a Launch Project Engineer for Artemis 1 like Weber and Kiriwas.  “If there is nothing going on, that’s a great day from an Integration Console perspective because you’ve got a healthy vehicle, a healthy ground system, and we’re going to go launch that day.”

“But obviously there’s hours and hours to the launch countdown, and we will occupy our time by looking into the different systems. We have access to all the different system displays at the Integration Console, so we will ourselves be watching some parameters that we have experienced challenges with during the processing flow, during the Wet Dress Rehearsal.”

Credit: NASA/Chad Siwik.

(Photo Caption: A smaller-sized group of launch team members participates in a more recent cryogenic propellant loading simulation on August 18, 2020, in Firing Room 1. Health safety protocols to mitigate transmission of COVID-19 are being applied to simulations taking place while social distancing measures are in effect, including reduced seating and plexiglass dividers between console seats.)

“There are going to be systems that are going to obviously be critical. We’ll obviously be watching the cryo load parameters as the vehicle is being fueled, we’ll be paying close attention to the procedures and watching critical milestones and looking for changes in state on some of the end items to make sure that we don’t have anything that goes undetected and would be something that would surprise the team.”

The unexpected is expected for a vehicle and ground systems that will be going through their first launch campaign. But even for launch systems with long operational histories, countdowns are not often completely boring for people troubleshooting issues. “It’s an interesting hypothetical because it’s never happened in my experience that we’ve gone through an entire count without having any non-conformances,” Weber noted.

The Integration Console project engineers have multiple anomaly loops to discuss issues that come up during the countdown. “We use several different anomaly loops. They’re recorded communication channels,” Bartolone said. “All of the different members of the launch team have access to those channels, so the discipline engineers that are located with us in Firing Room 1, the support launch teams that are located in Firing Room 2, and then our external support launch team members which are the flight programs, Orion and SLS.”

“They have their own launch teams that are supporting from Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Flight Center and then satellite locations that they then communicate with for the original equipment suppliers, their manufacturers like Boeing and Rocketdyne for the engines and so forth.”

“Our primary initial front door contact for Orion is someone called the MER Manager, so that’s the Mission Evaluation Room that is a part of the overall Mission Control Center out in Houston,” Bartolone explained.

SLS has a similar head contact for their support center at the program’s Marshall Space Flight Center home in Huntsville, Alabama. “For SLS, we have the SLS Engineering Support Center (SESC) that’s part of [the] Huntsville Operations [Support] Center; [that] is a control room that’s there on Marshall Space Flight Center and that [contact] is the SESC Manager,” Bartolone said.

“So those are our main points of contact, and then they tree down inside their organizations to pull in the necessary discipline experts to join us on one of the anomaly loops depending on the problem that we’re talking about. We wouldn’t necessarily reach directly to a system expert let’s say within Boeing, that would be the responsibility of the SESC Manager to go kind of reach down to that person.”

“But once that person [is] identified and brought onto the anomaly loop, then we would engage them in the discussion as a member of that anomaly team and begin the dialog on trying to resolve the problem that was detected and reported,” he added.

The launch team members in Firing Room 1 communicate on different voice channels, or loops, with each other and support teams elsewhere in the Launch Control Center and off-site. In addition to the communications loops for each launch team discipline, there are also cross-discipline loops. “We call them system specialist loops, and so each discipline team will have a system specialist loop dependent on the size of their team; there may be more than one,” Bartolone said.

“Our cryo team has a couple of them because of the size of that team. Those are what we call ‘cross-program’, meaning those are available out to the different design centers for the discipline experts as a part of [the] extended launch team.”

While the communication loops are private, there is also a main command channel that everyone is connected to; that one channel will be public during portions of the final countdown. As during Shuttle, the channels will be referred to by their Operational Intercommunications System (OIS) numbers.

“The numbers have changed, but in general the same construct is there from a communications network perspective. We have the command net which is what most people will hear [and] be out on NASA TV; folks will get snippets of that through NASA Public Affairs,” Bartolone noted. “Then the other channels are obviously all private.”

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