This Week's Flight Director Story

This has been a busy week so I am behind in making a post.  I’m also distracted with watching tropical weather; living on the coast is nice until hurricane season.  Oh well, that’s life.

One of the more serious assignments that can come to a Flight Director is to be the Lead for a flight.  This means that you are responsible for the overall planning and therefore the success or failure of a particular flight.  I drew this assignment for STS-96 which was the first logistics mission to the newly orbited International Space Station. 

In those days, the ISS consisted of the US build node “Unity” and the Russian built FGB “Zarya”.  There was no crew onboard because the crew quarters — the Russian built “Zvezda” Service Module — had not been launched.  The Functional Energy Block (FGB in Cyrillic) controlled the attitude, maintained the thermal control, generated the power, and generally did almost every function for the uninhabited station while the Unity Node provided a place for the shuttle to dock, someday.

Now, I’m general an Ascent/Entry Flight Director, and I had never dealt with the ISS program or any of the international partners, so this was all new to me.  A “broadening” experience.  Hmm.  I’d always considered the stuff in the payload bay to be useful mainly to control the center of gravity of the orbiter.  Now I had to know what it did and how to use it.

And there was a lot of stuff. In a pressurized module in the payload bay we carried a huge amount of equipment to install inside the new ISS, there was already maintenance to do, and we were bringing food, clothes, medical supplies and other logistics necessary for the first expedition crew who would come in another year or so.  I got acquainted with a whole new cast of folks who work the orbit shifts in the MCC that I never had to deal with before.  I’ll never forget my first meeting with my “transfer specialist.”  I asked her how I should get training on her job.  She asked me if I’d ever moved — that was experience enough.  And while orbital mechanics and rocket science are important, I came to find out that carrying boxes and containers from the “van” (shuttle) to the “house” (ISS) was the most critical and part of the job!

I also got to meet with a lot of Russians and got two trips to Moscow.  Funny, we always met in Moscow in the winter and Houston in the summer.  Seems like we would be smart enough to do it the other way.  Just like the Americans at NASA, I found out that the Russians were made up of a lot of groups of folks who generally worked together but sometimes did not.  Just like at NASA.  We would work closely with the team in the Russian control center (the “TsUP”) who built and operated the FGB.  These guys were all from the Khrunichev “company” (formerly design bureau).  Later on, the Energia “company” would take over.  I found out how closely Energia and Khrunichev worked together.  Almost as well as JSC and MSFC anyway.

The senior Khrunichev Flight Director, Yuri K had lived through WWII, all the bad old days, and was a smart, steady, and well respected senior leader.  His deputy, Yuri B. was about my age and smart as a whip.  Both of them treated me with all the genuine respect I could have expected from any of my American colleagues.  So we started planning.  What did they need to get done, and what did we need to get done and then what did we all need to get done together.  My Russian language skills are non-existent and their English was minimal but we had a really great technical translation team.  I learned to appreciate Russian tea (but not vodka) and they came to like Texas barbeque.  We got a lot of planning done. 

All the basic rules in place, we started training together.  How the simulation team lashed up the shuttle simulator in Houston with the FGB simulator in Russia is still a mystery but it all worked.  The very first simulation was going very well until the actual docking.

The mechanism that joins the shuttle to the station is built by the Russians.  It is extremely robust and reliable.  In actual flight we have never had any major problems but there are certain . . . idiosyncrasies.  Most of which we did not appreciate in the early days.  One of the “design features” are three little capture latches.  These are little spring loaded fingers that remind me a lot of the mechanism that holds my screen door shut.  Three little latches that connect the hundred ton shuttle to the growing station until the much stronger hooks are driven electrically to make a solid union.

So the first simulation proceeded fine up until the point where we were to dock.  Just before docking the Russians had to command the FGB to free drift — turn off its attitude control system.  If they didn’t do that, the shuttle and FGB automatic control systems would fight and burn up a lot of attitude control gas very quickly.  So the Khrunichev team sent the free drift command, the shuttle inched in for a docking and instead of the report from the MMACS officer of “capture”, I heard these words:  “bounce off, flight.”  What did that mean?  It meant that the little capture latches failed and we had met, touched, and bounced away.  Now on the shuttle side that is not a big deal — we still had attitude control, the crew backed away from the station and waited.  On the ISS side, they were out of control and the stack went into a tumble.  Turning back on the FGB attitude control system required many commands and without attitude control the antennas were not pointing properly.  Later we figured out that it would take about a half hour to get control back if we could maintain a command link . . . which we didn’t in that simulation.

Disaster.  The station without attitude control, tumbling, with intermittent communications, and degrading power.

Sim over. 

The debrief was not a happy one.

I set off with my team to develop a set of contingency plans to cover the “bounce off” scenarios.  Turns out that there were several variations on that theme, with different options to recover depending on which scenario that had been encountered.  After about three days work, I pulled together an outline procedure of about twelve pages covering every possible option and scenario.  My team agreed that this was what we needed.  We sent the document to the translators for our Russian colleagues to give us their option.

A day later, I got Yuri B’s take:  “This is a little long, can we condense it?”  Feeling a great deal of the pride of authorship, I replied: “I don’t see how you can but go ahead if you want to.”  No way was that pesky Russian deputy Flight Director going to condense my work!

The next day the translation team gave me Yuri’s input.  He put the whole thing on a 3×5 card.  Even in Cyrillic — which generally takes more space than English — it all fit on a 3×5 card. 

And it was right.  And complete.  And really elegant.  Yuri captured the essence of what I had taken twelve long single space pages to write down and put it on one 3×5 card.

Did I ever learn a lesson that day. 

The flight came, we docked without incident; all the bags and boxes got across the hatch and stowed properly; all the maintenance was done, all the logistics completed, and the flight was a huge success.  We never needed the “bounce off” procedures.  But we were ready if we needed them — all there on a 3×5 card; English on one side, Russian on the other.

So being a lead flight director was a very broadening experience.  I learned that there are a lot of folks on the other side of the ocean that are as passionate about space flight as I am.  I learned that there are at least some folks on the other side of the ocean that are smarter about space flight operations than I am.  I learned that despite language and cultural differences, we can work together successfully.  Yes, that was a very broadening experience. 

And we are still learning.








7 thoughts on “This Week's Flight Director Story”

  1. The space station looks very confusing from the outside, is it like that on the inside, like a maze? Also does the space station have real soviet remote control capsules?

  2. Thanks again for sharing your experience sir!!!

    This one kinda’ reminds me of some of my group activities at college, especially during the times I was assigned to be a group leader…

    What I learned during that time was even though I’m in charge of my team, listening to my groupmates is still a very helpful thing to do. Oftentimes when I have a plan that I think will work just fine, a group member will suggest another one that either works just the same, but more efficient, or a better plan than what I came up with just by myself…

    A group’s performance depends on everyone’s contribution to perform an assigned task…

    some say that involving the Russians on the ISS was a “mistake”… But I always think they were wrong… And your experience at MCC just proves that…

    By the way sir, are you also the flight lead for STS-104? Or is it sir John Shannon?

  3. Unfortunately unless you can cheaply deliver oil from space, space exploration is going to be a teeny tiny part of the political mind. Finding oil, taxing oil, & shipping oil seems to occupy most of the 3×5 cards down here.

  4. Hi Wayne,

    First off, my thought for you, your family, & the team at JSC. Please be safe, and hopefully this storm will become an annoyance, and nothing more.

    Second, thanks for another view from the Flight console… I’m sorry I was not there to enjoy that mission.

    Take care – and hopefully we’ll here back from you soon.


  5. “The debrief was not a happy one.”

    That’s a curious statement. I certainly understand from your perspective that you “failed”, but I see the sim as a big success. Clearly the idiosyncrasies of the latches weren’t understood by everybody, but since many successful dockings have taken place in orbit, I would argue that the sim succeeded in flushing out a problem in a safe way. Was it reasonable to foresee the latch problem in this case?

    I’d be curious to learn about the psychology of shuttle sims and how “real” they feel. In my experience it is often difficult to get people to take sims (say a fire drill in an office building) seriously.

    Joe Fitzgerald
    Boston MA

  6. Hey Wayne, Why is it that NASA keeps covering up the UFO phenomenom? Last time I spoke to an NSA retiree on vacation, he said you could dissapear if you let the truth be known? You scared?

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