The Planning Science behind The Autonomous Mission Operations Research Project

 By Lauren Rush, mission planner for AMO, space station and space shuttle

 A couple weeks ago, the AMO (Autonomous Mission Operations) team completed our first set of experiment runs. In order to decrease external variability and to get the best data from the runs, the crew executed the same mission timeline for each run. Doing this allows the researchers and data collectors to form relationships between the data collected and the different time delay scenarios which were tested. When the timeline is the same for each run, that takes one variable out of the equation and helps the researchers know that a varying timeline of activities is not impacting any of the data collected in the experiment. Dang, I feel like a scientist writing all of that!


This timeline was a 2 hour mix of activities meant to represent a quiescent period in the Deep Space Habitat (DSH). In space language, quiescent basically means there’s no dynamic (another space term) operations happening like robotics, dockings, or space walks. Quiescent operations for the AMO project is when the space habitat is happily floating along, returning to Earth from some cool asteroid. The astronauts are performing general maintenance and housekeeping tasks and are doing normal things that we here on planet Earth do, like exercising and looking for misplaced objects in their habitat. I hope that gives you a good picture of what the crew is doing.


On the ground, in the control center, the planner (a flight control position which we have lovingly named Kali – in Hindu, known as the goddess of time and change) keeps track of the crew’s progress through the timeline. Kali also works to deconflict any issues with the orchestration of the crew completing all their scheduled tasks and also replans future days based on the current day’s activities. We use a new scheduling tool called Score. And surprisingly enough, Score is not an acronym for anything… Some of you know we use lots of acronyms around here at NASA.


Score was developed by Ames Research Center (ARC) for planning use on International Space Station and future exploration programs. Score leverages the scheduling capabilities created by ARC and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for missions such as the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), Phoenix Lander and the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. The JPL and ARC development teams have created an “Ensemble Suite” of software (plug-in tools), based off of the open source Ensemble Integrated Development Environment (IDE), that can be added to/removed from the core planning software. This allows new functions and capabilities to be added to Score so that it can be used to support other missions, such as NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), Desert Research And Technology Studies (RATS) and Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) analog missions. The AMO team uses Score to support our research missions by providing a visual representation of the mission in order to keep the flight control team focused on the current day’s tasks. Since the communication with the crew can be delayed up to 5 minutes each way, it is important for the team to have awareness of what the crew is completing on board, especially if some of those tasks require coordination with the flight control team. The capabilities of Score will allow the team to easily identify relationships between the ground flight controllers and the onboard crew and the impact of unexpected schedule delays, and communication delays while maintaining mission cognizance.


This week we’re having our mitigation runs, where we participate in more experiment runs and use some the new techology to mitigate the communications delays we experienced in our first set of experiment runs. Follow the AMO mission on Facebook at for more information.

NEEMO 16: An Amazing Internship Research Opportunity

By Kaila Cappello
Kaila Cappello at Mission ControlImage at right: NASA intern Kaila Cappello poses from the NEEMO Science Facility.

I arrived in Key Largo on Sunday June 10th for the start of the NEEMO 16 mission taking place at the NOAA Aquarius lab located in Conch Reef. After settling in, I got to meet many of the people part of the NASA group and other members of the operations and science teams before we began the first all-hands meeting. After everyone introduced themselves, a quick briefing was given of what is to come during the mission. Not knowing much of what to expect, I begin to realize the amount of work and knowledge that is behind this mission and the amount of intelligence and experience that is packed into one trailer. To say that I was extremely intimidated is a bit of an understatement. An explanation is given to the group about how so many people would give an arm and a leg to be here for this mission, and my excitement grows as I realize how very fortunate I am to be here. After the meeting, I get a tour of the trailer in which the science team is located and some of the other facilities and features of the mission before adjourning for the day.

Mission Day 1

Day 2 started with the aquanaut splash down, the departure of those who are descending to live in Aquarius for the next two weeks to perform operations that will contribute to the understanding  and training of the eventual landing on a Near Earth Asteroid.  After the boat carrying the aquanauts departs, everyone meets for an all-hands meeting in the MMCC where introductions again are given for the new arrivals.  Afterwards, the entire science team meets in our trailer to set up and begin planning for all the dives that will take place over the coming week. Instruction and information is given to the DeepWorker pilots to get an understanding of what the science team wants to get out of the missions.
After lunch the team assembles again and we go over the Castaway and EXO2 Sonde software so that we know how to operate them for use in the dives. The Castaway is a handheld instrument that is deployed attached to the DeepWorkers and provides profiles of the conductivity, temperature, salinity, depth, and sound speed over an extended period of time, and the data from the mission can be viewed and collected afterwards. The EXO2 Sonde is a larger instrument in the shape of a cylinder a few feet long that measures even more parameters every second, including dissolved oxygen, pH, ORP, blue-green algae and chlorophyll, turbidity, and fDOM. It uses Bluetooth wireless communication and the data can be retrieved and downloaded after the mission. The Sonde is also attached to the DeepWorkers during each mission. Both instruments were borrowed from YSI Incorporated for NEEMO 16.
After we go over the technologies we’ll be in charge of during the DeepWorker missions, we then try to plan out the scuba dives of Mark Patterson and Art Trembanis where they will collect sediment and microbe samples and study closer some areas of spur and grooves as well as the great barrel sponges. A dive is scheduled for the following day to test the sampling device for the microbial samples, the camera equipment, and the flow visualization method of the barrel sponges. The equipment that is needed for the dive then gathered and organized and tasks are assigned to be done before the dive as day 2 comes to an end.

Mission Day 2

On Tuesday, we arrived at the dock bright and early for our originally planned deployment for the Lana Rose at 6:30. Due to some setbacks, our departure was delayed by about an hour.  We were given a quick safety briefing once we got onto the boat before leaving for the Lana Rose. Once we arrived to the ship, we transferred all of our belongings and equipment and climbed aboard the 100-foot long salvage vessel. We then began to setting up and testing our equipment to make sure we would be able to easily deploy them for the DeepWorker missions later in the day. We then waited around for awhile as the crew made some preparations for the arrival of the DeepWorker pilots and rest of the science team.
When the others arrived, we set up the Castaways and Sonde and got them ready for deployment. When our job was done, we got back onto the R/V Latency to transfer us back to the dock. We then took a break until the estimated deployment time of the DeepWorkers of about 3 pm. When we met back up, we attempted to begin sorting out communications issues between us and the science team on the Lana Rose to get everything up and running properly, and we set up a large television screen with the live feed of a camera mounted on one of the DeepWorkers. We then went over protocol on taking notes of the mission of what we see via the live feed and what we hear from the pilots’ descriptions of what they are seeing. We unfortunately hear of many complications with deploying the subs due mainly to the rough sea state and the inability to safely get the subs in and out of the water using the crane on board, and as more time passes we decide to alter and shorten the planned missions. The deployment time of the subs is delayed still by more and more time until it is eventually called off for the day as it gets too late.
Kaila Cappello poses with the DeepWorker sub.

Image at right: Cappello greets the DeepWorker sub on the Lana Rose.

After a break for dinner, the entire science team meets up to discuss plans for altering the mission schedule since a full day of missions had been lost. We review what went wrong and how we can schedule the rest of the missions to get as much done as possible. Shifting the schedule to night dives is discussed since it is believed that the sea state will be better, and how these changes would affect the pilots, the teams, and the boat crew is also brought into consideration because a change in sleeping patterns could pose a higher risk for the dives. Eventually a decision is arrived at to run a mission starting in the early evening and ending late at night, but to let everyone sleep in the morning before the mission.

Mission Day 3

The next day started late with a science team meeting at 2 pm. We reviewed the plans for the dive to occur later in the day and come up with a tentative schedule for the day, keeping in mind the delays that will inevitably occur and factoring in time to process data and sleep so that everyone gets enough rest. The dive is set for 8 pm and a test dive is also scheduled to occur around 4 to make sure the DeepWorkers can be deployed safely.
Sponges on the reefImage at right: A monitor displays images of sponges on the reef.

We left for the Lana Rose with the rest of the science team around 6:30, bringing with us the Castaway and EXO2 Sonde equipment. Once we arrived, we quickly set up our equipment and got them ready for deployment and then returned to the dock again soon after. Back in the science trailer, we waited for the subs to be deployed and watched the live feed of the camera mounted on DeepWorker 6 manned by Dr. Stan Love. We took notes as we saw objects and areas of interest on the screen, and we also rated the data quality and the observation quality every 20 minutes.  After a few hours, the communications and live feed was delayed by 50 seconds to simulate the delay if the sub was actually as far away as on a Near Earth Asteroid. The mission lasted about three and a half hours before the DeepWorker resurfaced. We then waited around until the team returned from the Lana Rose so that we could turn off the Castaways and Sonde and download the data before finally calling it a night.

I am lucky enough to be using this mission for my research internship for the summer on the great barrel sponges in the reef. Throughout the week, I will be helping out with some closer study and tests done on the sponges to use for my research on the distribution of the sponges throughout the reef and the types of environments they prefer to live in. I am extremely excited for the rest of the week and to be on the boat actually viewing some of the dives take place. As an engineer, I am fascinated by the DeepWorkers and the other slew of technologies at work during the running of these tests, and I am incredibly thankful to be given the opportunity to witness some of this amazing mission.
Learn more about NEEMO at

Home Sweet Deep Space Habitat

By Autonomous Mission Control Crew B Commander Rex Walheim
June 13, 2012 – Run #1
Time Delay: 5 Seconds

Things are going smoothly onboard.  We are operating with a 5 sec time delay, which doesn’t impact ops much.  We are coming up to speed on our new tools.  Web PD is helpful in running the procedures.  No failures yet today, so we haven’t had a chance to use the Automated Caution and Warning System.  I am sure that will come. 

June 13, 2012 – Run #2

Time Delay: 300 seconds (5 minutes)

We have a 5-minute time delay.  Pidgin chat helps a lot to deal with the delay, but the time delay gets tricky when there are malfunctions.  Crew continues to get along well.  However, without much voice comm, it is harder to keep tabs on what the rest of the crew is doing.
Flat Skynyrd* spotted by Jason outside habitat during survey.  I last spotted him on flight deck of Atlantis on STS-122.  I guess he wanted to go EVA this time.  Sing with me….”Sweet home Ala’cabot”**
Rex Out!


June 13, 2012 – Run #3

Time Delay 50 seconds

One of our flight engineers has a simulated medical  issue.   Hope it is not the food.  We could all be going down then.  We are a long way from home.  Too late to turn around.  Try not to think bad thoughts.  Get a hold of yourself man!  HAL says everything is under control.  Not sure if we can believe a computer.  What could possibly go wrong?  What was that noise?  WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?


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* Walheim references “Flat Skynyrd,” which is the Guidance and Navigation Control console’s mascot. A little fact: Rex Walheim flew Flat on his shuttle mission to the space station (STS-122).

** For the AMO mission, the Deep Space Habitat has been re-dubbed Cabot.


By Aquanaut Tim Peake (European Space Agency)
Aquanaut Tim Peake prepares to anchor so he has a stable platform from which to gather samplesImage at Right: Tim Peake prepares to anchor so he has a stable platform from which to gather samples. 
“Good Teamwork” — it’s something that makes the difference between winning or losing, success or failure and in extreme cases living or dying. As jargon, "teamwork" is easy enough to say — much harder to define and it can be a tricky little recipe to create.
When everyone is working selflessly towards a common goal…that’s a good start…and as a crew member of NEEMO 16, I am witnessing daily so many fantastic examples of great teamwork. Often it’s the little things that make all the difference, like the thankless task our support divers had removing the trash bags from Aquarius this morning, or coming in from nearly five hours in the water and being met by Steve offering hot chocolate and wasabi peas. I had told Steve that I didn’t need anything, but he knew I did…and he was right!
Then there is the bigger picture, the huge support infrastructure from Mission Control and the immense logistical effort to ensure that we have the right tools, equipment, communications, medical support and IT to do the job, without which we could not accomplish the mission. There are people enduring many hours a day in a five-foot Atlantic swell above us, or monitoring computer screens 24/7 in windowless rooms, not to mention those topside divers and supervisors who are looking after us in the water and ensuring that we have a seamless transition from one task to the next.
And then there are our two habitat technicians James and Justin, who quietly go about their business (OK, maybe James is not that quiet!) of knowing exactly what we need and when we need it…keeping us on track and safe in our temporary underwater home. And I have only mentioned a fraction of the team so far.
The fact that so many people have come together from such diverse backgrounds and cultures, and in a short space of time gelled together into a tight knit and highly efficient team speaks volumes about the common goal that has united this team…pushing the boundaries of humanity’s exploration into the solar system. And that is something most definitely worthy of all of our effort.
So NEEMO 16 has successfully achieved that tricky little recipe of great teamwork and as with all good recipes this also has a lot to do with the chef…but that is a subject for another blog…LEADERSHIP!
Learn more about NEEMO at

Keeping Crew Healthy

* Editor’s Note: Normally we have the Autonomous Mission Operation commander for the day post a blog, but two simulated medical emergencies kept the crew busy today. So, instead, we have an entry from Victor Hurst. Victor is a research scientist in space medicine at Johnson Space Center, as well as the AMO ultrasound guinea pig — whenever there’s a simulated medical emergency, he plays the indisposed patient, on whom the Crew Medical Officer performs an ultrasound.


By Victor Hurst, space medicine research scientist

When you are not feeling well, you usually hop into a car or some other earth-based vehicle and take yourself to the doctor, right?  Astronauts taking part in an exploration class space mission far away from this planet cannot do that.


The exploration of space has been limited to low earth orbit since man last walked on the moon in December 1972.  As this country plans to re-start its exploration of space, perhaps past the moon, the space program must prepare its astronaut crews to manage medical events, both planned and unplanned, during their missions.  Why? Maintenance of crew health is paramount towards maximizing human performance and, subsequently, mission success.  To do so, the program needs to develop a specific level of medical capability that will fulfill this need.


In order to understand the capability that is needed to maintain and treat crew members during exploration class space missions, the Autonomous Mission Operation (AMO) within the Deep Space Habitat (DSH) here at the NASA-Johnson Space Center (JSC) allows us to take an initial look on treating medical conditions relevant to exploration space flight.  In doing these tests, we can identify what equipment and procedures are needed for such missions.  More importantly, we can determine what level of training is needed in order for crew to autonomously manage their medical issues without seriously impacting the tasks needed to complete their mission.


Crew Medical Officers (CMO) are astronauts that are trained to be the medical caregivers for crew during each mission.  Since only about 10% of the astronaut corps are formally trained physicians, we need to develop specialized training and clinical tools that will enable non-physician CMOs (i.e. laymen) to properly manage medical events during these types of missions.  Some folks let us know, “Hey, why don’t you just fly a doctor like Bones McCoy on the 1960s TV show Star Trek?”  That’s a great idea but what happens if it is the doctor who becomes ill?  Because of this possibility, the emphasis is to provide training, procedures, equipment and other resources to CMOs who are not formally-trained clinicians in order for them to properly manage medical events in the absence of doctor.


The AMO Tests within the DSH are enabling NASA Space Medicine to identify techniques and technology that will help CMOs maintain crew health and optimize crew performance for exploration class space missions.  These tests also enable NASA to use innovation to expand the standard of medical care for not only these types of missions but also for all us down here on this planet.



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Underwater Spacewalks

Steve Squyres conducts an underwater
By Aquanaut Steve Squyres (Cornell University)

Image at right: Steve Squyres conducts an underwater spacewalk.

Extra-vehicular activity. Spacewalk. Whether you say it in NASA-ese or plain English, a walk in space conjures up images of floating serenely above the Earth’s surface (or maybe above an asteroid), enjoying the freedom that only zero-gravity can afford.

The reality, however, can be a little different.

Nobody does a spacewalk just for fun. Yep, they’re fun, no doubt about it… ask anybody who’s done one. But they’re always done with a purpose. If you couple that sense of purpose with a solid emphasis on safety, the reality of a spacewalk is that it becomes an intricate matter of managing tools, equipment and tethers. Lots and lots and lots of tethers.

I’m the one non-astronaut on the NEEMO 16 crew, so I don’t have the months of training in EVA tricks and procedures that my fellow crewmembers have. Luckily, though, I come from a mountaineering background, where we use the same kind of equipment — nylon slings and carabiners — that the astronauts use on orbit. It’s really the same kind of problem… you need to move around, and you need to clip yourself reliably to something so that you don’t drift (space) or fall (mountains) off into nowhere.

So the good news is that I sorta know what I’m doing. The bad news is that we all have to do a lot of it! We don’t go anywhere without two safety tethers holding us down to something. Any piece of equipment we have with us has to have a tether. The box that holds all the tethers has a tether. And on and on and on. You can see from the picture how it looks. Do it right, and everything works reasonably well. Do it wrong, and you’ve got spaghetti.

We did it pretty well today, most of the time. But you’ve really got to keep your focus. Drifting serenely above the Earth, or an asteroid, or the sea floor definitely has a certain appeal. But if you want to do it right, you also have to be pretty good at not getting tangled.

To learn more about the NEEMO 16 mission, visit:


By Aquanaut Tim Peake (European Space Agency)

The NEEMO 16 Crew prepares for splashdownImage at right (left to right): JAXA Astronaut Kimiya Yui, NASAAstronaut (and N16 Commander) Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, ESA AstronautTim Peake, and Veteran Aquanaut Dr. SteveSquyres.

After months of training and preparation the day finally arrived…Splashdown for NASA’s NEEMO 16 mission. The crew woke early, eager to pack the few last remaining items into the ‘pots’ that our superb support crew, amongst their many other tasks, would be taking down to the Aquarius habitat ahead of our arrival.

The atmosphere on the Key Largo dockside this morning was buzzing with activity, conversation and good humour. The NEEMO mission team had gathered to say farewell to the saturation crew – and despite our intense excitement at what lay ahead we were genuinely sorry to say goodbye to all our friends and colleagues who have dedicate so much time and effort into making this a successful mission so far.

The weather today was kind, as it had been all week, and with only a 2-3 foot swell to deal with, our dive boat made quick work of the 8km out to Life Support Buoy, which feeds Aquarius with electricity and clean air. It felt quite weird — donning SCUBA gear for what could have been a routine dive but knowing that we would not be surfacing for 12 more days! With our team photo complete and the hot Florida sun beating down on us — finally jumping into the ocean was just the best feeling ever.

Since we had full cylinders of air on our backs the team enjoyed a great dive around Aquarius, which included of course posing for the customary pre-mission photos! As we positioned ourselves around one of Aquarius’ port holes we were joined by an inquisitive little turtle, who we later learned was called Little Joe and was a huge fan with previous NEEMO crews. With the air getting low it was finally time to say goodbye to our topside dive buddies and head into the wet-porch of Aquarius, where our lab technicians James and Justin were waiting to greet us. Some of the first things we noticed were the higher pitch of our voices and the fact that it was very hard to whistle in the thick air under a pressure of 2.5 atmospheres.

Aquarius is such an amazing place — unique as it is currently the only underwater habitat in the world and as James took us through the initial briefing it was hard not to be distracted by the Wrasse, Grouper, Barracuda and myriad of other marine animals who were queuing up outside the portholes to look at these strange humans who had come to share their environment for a short period of time.

Unfortunately, our free time to enjoy the new environment was limited as we had to get to work setting up our ‘IV Station’ with communications, IT, cameras, etc., and getting back into the water in pairs with our mini-workstations and jet-packs attached for more familiarization and practice of our asteroid extravehicular activity techniques.

So a successful and busy start to this amazing mission, and as we acclimatise to our new surroundings, it is very clear to see that the real fun is only just beginning!

To learn more about the NEEMO 16 mission, visit: