Prima Donnas and Ice Cream Socials



STS-3 marked the first “long duration” shuttle flight of eight days.  One of the major objectives was thermal testing of the orbiter.  This was not exciting work, the test consisted of pointed the orbiter in a certain attitude and holding for a period of time, measuring the temperature response and correlating the response to computer models, then moving to another attitude. 


Two significant “human factors” events made this flight memorable to those of us in mission control.


Factor number one was that two of the senior flight directors assigned had, well, no love lost for each other.  The rivalry had gone back years, apparently.  Both of them were known as “prima donnas” in an office full of Type A personalities.  Barely civil to each other most of the time, during the stresses of the flight this turned into full bore warfare. 


Factor number two was a rookie flight director with a team that did not have a lot to do and the very limited communications we had with the shuttle in those days.  This lead to . . . interesting situations. 


To review the bidding; in those early shuttle days, there were three mission control teams supposedly set to cover the three approximately 8 hour shifts each day.  The Lead Flight Director was generally set to cover the lion’s share of the crew work day, from just before crew awake until well into their “afternoon” period.   Generally the most complicated activities on the flight took part during this time.  At that time, the orbit 2 shift (which covered the remainder of the crew day and ‘put the crew to bed’) was also the Entry team; responsible at the end of the flight for returning the crew safely.  (Lead Flight Directors were considered to be incapable of also serving as an Ascent or Entry flight director during the same flight – too many responsibilities, too many training and proficiency objectives, etc.).  The Ascent team that launched the crew performed a “whifferdill” on the first day – handed over post ascent to the Orbit 2 team, hurried home to catch a short nap – and returned in about 8 hours to receive handover from the Orbit 2 team and transform themselves from the Ascent team to the Planning Team.  The planning team always works while the crew is asleep to review, revise, and polish the crew activity plan for the next day.


I was working the Ascent/Planning team as the Propulsion systems officer.


The shift schedule is controlled by the Lead Flight Director and he can (and generally does) shift it to suit the activities of the day; sometimes teams have longer or shorter shifts depending on what is happening, handover times are changed to accommodate activities that one or the other of the flight control teams had specifically trained to monitor. 


On the very first day, the Orbit 2 (/Entry) team Flight Director did something that ticked off the Lead (Orbit 1) team Flight Director.  As we handed over to the very first shift of the Orbit 2 team, we could hear a loud conversation wafting over the consoles from the back row of Mission Control.  As we were leaving, our flight director said it would be good to call in the recorded number to find out when we were to be back on console.  After working 16 out of the last 24 hours, we all hurried home to bed. 


Awakening later, the recording had a greatly revised shift schedule from the pre-flight published one.  The Orbit 2 team was not on it at all.  Seems the Lead Flight Director (Orbit 1 team) had determined that his team should be on for almost the entire crew day (10 hours or so) and that the Planning team (my team) would cover the rest of the day (about 14 hours) and the Orbit 2 team was . . . not required.  Wow.  To this day, I don’t know how that happened.


This started a very long stretch of very long days. Fortunately, the sleep shift was pretty quiet.  Not to say that the thermal testing was going well; just the opposite.  Seems that the computer models were pretty bad and we were learning a lot.  Which means there was a significant amount of replanning going on.


In the days before the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites were launched, communications with the shuttle, like communications with the Mercury and Gemini astronauts before us, depending on the spacecraft flying overhead a ground tracking station.  These passes were short, about 8 minutes maximum, and there could be significant periods of Loss Of Signal (LOS) between stations.  Nowadays we have almost continuous communications with crews in earth orbit, but that was not the case then. 


During the wee hours of the night shift, the orbit lined up in such a way that the spacecraft would be in communication with only one tracking station each orbit; generally the one in Santiago, Chile.  The AGO to AGO passes were notorious.   Try to stay awake at 3 or so in the morning when you get to watch telemetry for 8 minutes every 90 minutes . . . no talking to the crew since they are asleep.  We were desperate to do something to break the monotony.


I don’t know who suggested the ice cream social.  But we thought it was a great idea.  So on one particular night, dozens of gallons of ice cream, fruit, syrups, paper plates and bowls made their appearance in the MCC.  We cleared all the paperwork off the consoles in the front row – the ‘trench’  – and stuffed ourselves on the goodies.  At the next AGO pass, the front consoles were too sticky and covered with goo to use; but all was well, so no big deal.  We slowly cleaned up and then got down to the business of planning the next crew day’s activities.  Except that it was a big day for changes.  The engineers in the Mission Evaluation room wanted lots of new attitudes, lots of changes.  We started working through a sugar induced fog.  Then the clock ran out. 


The Orbit 1 team and their now infamous Lead Flight Director showed up early because they had been forewarned it would be a busy day.  And what did they find?  The Planning team had not completed the plan!!!!  Uh oh.  Even worse, when we got the plan finalized (with the Orb 1 team hunched over our shoulders) the tracking station that we needed to send the plan up had a maintenance problem, and another 20 minutes elapsed before we could tell the crew the changes.


The shift recording had more changes that day.  When we got back on the planning shift – and well after the Orbit 1 team left – we made a big sign and hung it in the back of the MCC (where it wouldn’t show on TV):  “Welcome Back Orbit 2 Team”. 


I don’t actually know if they ever saw that sign since we handed over to Orbit 1.


After STS-3 landing, the Flight Operations management team had a “retreat” where new rules about shift changes, shift durations, etc., were written down.  And some folks got “promotions” out of the flight director office.


And we never had another ice cream social in the front room of the MCC again. 


That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.