In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Payload Operations Director Stephanie Buskirk Dudley shares a behind-the-scenes look at work on the ground leading up to and supporting research in orbit.
Right now, at this very minute, there are hundreds of investigations going on above your head. This research ranges from growing plants to burning different kinds of materials. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are living and working in the most sophisticated laboratory ever built. And it’s my job to keep track of all that research and ensure that the orbital lab runs like a well-tuned orchestra.
I am one of 23 payload operations directors (PODs) in the Payloads Operations Integration Center (POIC) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Together, we are responsible for planning the crew’s work schedules down to 5-minute increments, ensuring research stays on track and liaising between the astronauts performing experiments and the investigators conducting the research. It is a lot like conducting a symphony. At any given time we could have 10, 20 or 50 different things happening in orbit, in the POIC and in the five similar control rooms around the world. It’s a thrilling, high-intensity job that leaves me exhausted at the end of the day. There are times I don’t get a chance to eat or even run to the bathroom; but I love it. I really do have the coolest job, and when my shift is over, I look back and say, “Wow. Look what we accomplished!”
We have three shifts working around the clock every day of year—including holidays and weekends—supporting space station research. We have research that requires astronauts’ participation, but we also have studies that we control from the ground. This ground-controlled research frees up the astronauts’ time to do other research or maintenance on the station. It also allows us to do research while the crew is asleep. Since we have research going on all day and night, our schedules vary between the day, afternoon and midnight shifts.
Our work begins long before we show up for our shift. In fact, we start planning any given day on the space station about 12 months in advance. We need to consider a number of logistics when planning for the crew to run an experiment. For example, we need to factor the amount of power needed, the thermal output and gaseous exhaust produced, limitations of specific systems, spatial conflicts and bandwidth for video and data, as well as the set number of video channels needed to observe and record the experiment. And that’s just naming a few things we worry about. Sometimes, a year just doesn’t seem enough.
Even with all that planning, we still have to deal with the unforeseen and be prepared to adapt. Just like in our homes on Earth, things need to be repaired aboard the station. If the toilet breaks, for instance, that becomes the highest priority for the crew, and research gets pushed to the backburner until the facilities are fixed. My fellow PODs and I understand. The exercise equipment also is a high priority in orbit since the crew members must work out for two hours a day to keep their bones and muscles healthy.
So, how do we balance all these constraints, logistics and demands? With lots of preparation and a well-trained team. I actually begin reviewing plans about a week prior. I will check to see if the investigations have been conducted in the past and ask myself how did we do them before and what’s different this time. I will refresh my training on the old and new studies, payload regulations, flight rules and any planning constraints that may impact the day’s activities for both the crew and the ground teams.
This research helps me be prepared for anything. Let’s say I’m working the day shift–my favorite shift because the crew is still awake. They have been working all morning, and I need to be up-to-speed on what they’re doing even before I get to work. If I get to the POIC and find the crew is ahead of schedule, I can adjust the timeline accordingly. Likewise, if they are behind schedule or an investigation hasn’t gone according to plan that morning, I need to be prepared for that as well. The research I’ve done the previous week helps greatly.
I am also briefed when I arrive at work. The day shift begins at 7 a.m., but I’m usually there about a half hour before to review the stack of papers the midnight shift has left me. After reading the daily logs and familiarizing myself with what went on overnight, I scan the handover sheet. This document details what’s going on with the crew, provides information related to specific payloads and lists items the previous shift was unable to complete. The outgoing PODs work hard to ensure that incoming PODs have everything they need, and the previous POD will always include notes that will help the incoming POD.
Armed with the latest information, I have a conference call with the morning flight director in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as well as my counterparts from NASA’s International Space Station partners. In that call, I get more information about what happened before I arrived and how the day is scheduled to go. I also provide a report to the morning flight director on what our shift will look like. This includes issues my team and I are tracking, crew and research statuses and anything else that might be out of the ordinary. Once everyone has spoken and the flight director is confident we’re all on the same page, we officially transfer from the midnight shift to the day shift.
Once the shift transfers, I literally take the outgoing POD’s seat and lead my team for the day. From this point until the day shift hands over the reins to the afternoon shift, I am responsible for all the research on the space station NASA is conducting. When you think about it, that’s a pretty incredible thing! If things go well, I have an awesome sense of accomplishment. If, on the other hand, things don’t go so well, I am the person the flight director calls for answers.
Fortunately, I have a solid team working with me in the POIC, and we’re all focused on making sure the space station is producing the best research possible. Depending on the shift, the team ranges from five to 10 people, as well as two to four addition folks who are responsible for managing the POIC facility. They ensure we have power to run the computers that crunch the data coming down from the station day and night.
Like a band where each member has a specific instrument, everyone on the team has a specific responsibility. The PAYCOMs, what we call the payload communications managers, are vital to ensuring the research gets done properly. If the crew has a question about the study they are working on, the PAYCOMs have the answers. They are the voice of the POIC. It’s not an easy job either; the PAYCOM must be able to understand the research well enough to explain the investigator’s hypothesis to the crew and describe the actions the astronaut is to perform. Although it’s a demanding job, it also has its perks. The PAYCOMs get to speak regularly with the crew. Some might find this intimidating, but our PAYCOMs really enjoy it.
The operations controllers (OC) are responsible for helping all of us stay on track. Without the OCs, the timelines could fall apart, and the past 12 plus months of planning would have been in vain. The OCs try to stay ahead of the astronauts and anticipate what tools or resources might be needed. This way, everything will be on hand when it’s needed, and we won’t have to slow down to find the right information. The operations controllers are also responsible for any safety issues that might arise. Safety is our number one priority, and the PODs rely heavily on the OCs to make sure we stay safe.
Another member of the team is the payload rack officer (PRO). This position definitely has the best acronym, and it’s apropos because the men and women who are PROs really are pros! The PROs are responsible for sending the commands to the space station that enable the research. They ensure there is enough power to run the experiment, thermal controls are set properly, adequate venting is provided, communications links are established and other logistics needed to allow the research to be conducted. They also manage the command link, which allows investigators all over the world to operate their studies on the station. Thanks to computers and the Internet, it probably surprises no one that these days scientists conducting investigations aboard the space station could be located anywhere in the world. Researchers from countries such as Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland operate and command research everyday with the help of our PROs.
It’s no small task to get the scientific data to these researchers in far off countries. The data management coordinators (DMC) are responsible for providing the data, including video when available, to the scientists on the ground. They route the information from the various science facilities on the station to the POIC, and our ground systems teams get the data to the researchers. The DMCs must negotiate limited bandwidth and manage our up- and downlink capabilities. For instance, if the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)—an investigation looking into dark matter and one of our biggest data users—started to get behind on downlinking data, a DMC would adjust demands to free up bandwidth for AMS from other studies that are perhaps ahead of schedule or of a lower priority.
One of the greatest challenges for most of us is remembering where we left things. Imagine how much harder it is to keep track of objects when they can float away instead of just dropping to the floor if you let go. The responsibility of remembering where everything is falls to the stowage engineer. Personally, I think they have the greatest challenges of everyone on the team, especially when new hardware arrives at the station. Stowage information is only as good as the information the crew gives us. We tell the crew where to find tools and materials and where to return them; however, if the crew doesn’t secure the objects properly, they could float away. It’s the stowage engineers who are tasked with finding the missing objects. This is a pretty stressful task from 250 miles away, but our stowage engineers are experts at finding missing objects and knowing where to store things. They keep the station a tight ship.
Each shift has an increment scientist representative (LIS rep) who helps us make priority calls on operations. They are the science experts in attendance and can make a call on how to adjust an investigation if things aren’t running as smoothly as planned. If the LIS reps don’t know the answers, they get in touch with the principal investigators or payload developers immediately. If things are not going right or running longer than the schedule allows, the LIS reps help determine the best course of action.
If it becomes necessary to adjust the schedule, the timeline change officer (TCO) helps make those changes. We don’t always change the timeline because of problems. Sometimes unexpected results occur, and the investigator wants to spend a little more time to understand what’s happening. When it becomes necessary to extend or shorten the schedule for one reason or another, it is the TCOs who process the paperwork to get the timeline changed and manage all the residual effects of the change.
So much is going on all day, every day that it can seem like a cacophony of investigations, data transmissions and research questions. It is my job as a POD to manage the various aspects of the day and bring harmony to the clamor of science in the POIC. I love what I do. I love being the conductor of this amazing orchestra of research.
Stephanie Buskirk Dudley is an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She has a Bachelor of Science in engineering science, a Master of Science in biomedical engineering and a Master of Engineering in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Florida. She previously worked at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as an analytical engineer on the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.