Shuttle firing room veterans preparing to help launch Artemis 1

by Philip Sloss

There is also more automation now to handle some of the additional complexity of sending sequences of commands to the different flight and ground systems.  “There’s a lot more automation, and John can speak better to this because he’s on the cryo loading team, which they have done a fantastic job of getting their system in a position to support the tanking effort,” Wyrick said. “We’re a lot more automated, but we’re also monitoring those things much more carefully.”

Sterritt picked up on that: “We take advantage of automation anytime we can; we did with Shuttle as well. We’re more advanced now as far as our ability to automate. I think probably for subsequent flights you’ll see more automation as we get smarter and the requirements get more succinct and we can do it. But we definitely take advantage of it wherever we can.”

Sterritt said that from an MPS perspective the two vehicles are complicated in different ways: “With Shuttle, for propulsion, there was added complexity in the systems because we had to support an RTLS [Return To Launch Site] abort and of course the nominal landings, so that made for additional subsystems in MPS to handle the repressurization of those systems for landing and staying out on the runways.”

“We also had a slightly more complex system in that it was reusable, so we carried our hydrogen recirculation pumps with us whereas with Artemis we use gravity feed. But of course, [on Artemis], we’ve got two stages.  “[We have] the Core Stage, which is not unlike Shuttle, and [also] the upper stage. Which is a new challenge for us… and then integrating those in the ground support equipment.”

“So there’s different challenges, but I would say from a complexity standpoint they’re close to the same because of the second stage,” he added.

Graeber noted that the launch team still oversees the execution of the software commands and their results and choreographs which countdown tasks to perform and when. “Although there’s automation within much of the sequencing and the work that’s done during launch countdown, the way that we proceduralize and schedule the work is still our team working together to ensure that we’re ready to do each of the bits and pieces of configuration that we need to do at the right times,” he said.

Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky.

(Photo Caption: Launch controllers in Firing Room 2 of the Launch Control Center during the Artemis 1 joint integrated launch simulation that was coincidentally held on the 10th anniversary of the final Space Shuttle launch of STS-135.)

“Ultimately, some of it is having the flexibility to — if there’s an issue with one system that we’re working through — still continue to make progress with other work. So I’d say I agree with what Roberta and John both said, but I do feel like it’s pretty similar to the way that we operated within the Shuttle Program, just newer and better capabilities to do the same kind of work.”

Graeber also spoke about similarities in the responsibilities at the test conductor and test director levels of the launch team. “The unique thing about the test director role and the test conductors [is that] for us it’s much more about having a broader understanding of the work and how things work together,” he said.

“[We need to have a broader understanding of] how that procedure is built such that you can efficiently move through the work, along with a schedule that efficiently puts the work together, [puts together] what you can do serially, and what you can do in parallel.”

“Ultimately the complexity of the flight hardware really just is manifested into that procedure and that schedule, so the jobs that the test director and test conductor have are very similar,” he explained. “It’s managing the work, identifying where you’ve got constraints and areas where you can move the work around to efficiently get down to the terminal count of launch and then get to the opening of the [launch] window.”

“So for us, some of the nomenclature changes, some of the hardware that you’ve got to become familiar with at a certain level is different, but the real core of our responsibility is very similar.”

Wyrick said that another distinction on launch day for Artemis 1 is that she will be on console early. “The loading and the countdown for Artemis 1 are so integral [to] the final part of the countdown that the same team, at least in our office, is going to be covering probably that whole portion: the loading and the final countdown,” she said.

“Where in Shuttle days you had a loading team and then you had a launch team, and they came in about three to four hours prior to launch. But here we’re going to be there probably a 12-hour day. Which is fine, not unusual, and cover that whole loading and launch time-frame.”

Working with new generation of controllers for Artemis 1

John Shannon is now Boeing’s Vice President and Program Manager for SLS, but he served as NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Manager during the final years of mission operations. Given the 10 year anniversary, “[STS-135 Mission Commander, Chris Ferguson] asked me if I could join the crew [at Kennedy] and take a look at [Atlantis],” he said in a July 13 interview. “They had dinner and they had a couple of the processing people out there as well.”

Following her final successful mission and safe return, Atlantis retired to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex down the road from her long-time Orbiter Processing Facility home. Shannon is another one of the Shuttle veterans returning to help launch Artemis 1, and on July 8 he was busy working on the Day of Launch joint integrated launch simulation.

“I wanted to [join the STS-135 crew], but we had the sim, and we had already told the program I would support it from the Huntsville headquarters building,” he said. “I will be in Firing Room 4 for the actual launch, but they set up an analog to that in one of the conference rooms here in Huntsville so I could save some travel dollars.”

“It’s nice to be in the digital, distributed network age because we were able to tie in, and it looked like we were looking right at the vehicle and all the voice loops, so you’re able to work out the [communications] with the teams. We went through a very extensive run up to the launch count.”

“[We] started at about 6 am and had T0 at about 3:30-ish [pm] and took it all the way to through to ICPS sep, so it was a long day, but man did I have fun,” Shannon said. “I kind of grew up in that world, and it was nice to get back into a pseudo console and talk on the loops.”

“I missed being with the 135 guys, but I really enjoyed watching the next generation figure out how to do it again.”

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

(Photo Caption: NASA management watch from Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center just after liftoff of STS-135 ten years ago as Atlantis and crew depart for the International Space Station. )

Managing the Shuttle Program during its flyout, Shannon worked with his management team on dual objectives. “For 135, Congress and the Administration had decided to end the Shuttle Program, and we were just really, really focused on two things,” he said.

“One was making sure that we ended the program safely because as you get to the end you worry about issues or people or losing folks or [anything] that could put the program at a risk, and so we were really focused on making sure that we had the right resources to execute the missions that were laid out.”

“The other was to make sure that we were treating the team that had brought that amazing vehicle to life, mission after mission, that they were treated with respect and that we ended the program well and helped them in whatever way that we could.”

“I was really proud of the entire team that was able to communicate regularly to the workforce to make sure that they knew exactly what we were doing and help them as we phased out of that program,” Shannon noted. “There were a lot of media that interviewed Shuttle employees on their last day [of work], and to a person I think [the message] was just ‘I was so proud I got to work on this program.'”

“[There was] a lot of pride in that workforce, and that was really gratifying to everybody on the team that we were able to end it on a really high note. We got the ISS squared away so that it could survive in the intervening years as the cargo capabilities ramped up to take the place of the Shuttle,” Shannon added. “We got Hubble serviced for a last time to allow it to last [another] ten years here, and I know they’re working through a problem right now, but knowing that team they’ll [resolve it].”

Looking ahead at preparations for Artemis 1, the Shuttle veterans noted how impressed they are with the new generation of control team members training to fly Orion and SLS. “One other thing that I’m thoroughly amazed at is how great the younger engineers that have never had a chance to launch have learned this stuff,” Sterritt said.

“In the amount of time we’ve had to put them through simulations and practice, the questions that they come and ask me are in-depth, make a lot of sense, and cause me to think. I think we have a really good launch team coming up that’s going to provide us the support we need for a long time in the future.”

Shannon’s Boeing Core Stage team recently completed the Green Run design verification campaign at Stennis Space Center and is supporting the EGS/Jacobs team that will launch Artemis 1. “You could tell they learned a lot in how to work on the vehicle during the extensive Stennis testing,” he said. “We did a complete characterization of the [Core Stage], but we also trained the team how to operate the vehicle. And that really has come out in these sims, that the team really understands how the vehicle is built and designed and should behave and what to do if there’s any issues and who to talk to.”

“I was very impressed by how far ahead the team is than where I thought they would be at this point.”

Earlier in his career, Shannon served in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center as a Shuttle flight controller and flight director. “As far as the flight director days and the flight controller days, you have so much respect and admiration for the teams that you worked with, the people that were selfless and learned their systems and worked with the customers and worked with the crews and just did everything they possibly could to make sure the mission was as successful as it possibly could be.”

“And unless you lived in it, it was hard to imagine a more dedicated group of people that were focused on accomplishing that goal of really making those missions a success,” he commented.

“Like I said at the start of this, I’m seeing it again [with Artemis]. It’s been a tough few years here going through development and production of a brand new vehicle, but we’ve got an unbelievable national capability now that the team is figuring out how to breathe life into and operate. and I’m as excited as I can be that we’re going to get back into exploration and really be able to build those teams and execute those missions, just like when I first came to the agency.”

(Lead image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.)

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