Old Flight Director War Stories

We have had a splendid day in London building cooperation in space with our oldest ally.  Some time later I’ll have to tell you all about it.   Right now, by popular demand, I thought I’d tell a story about what happened to me when I was a brand new shuttle Flight Director.  It sorta ties into some of last week’s blog and I promise it won’t be pithy or pontificate . . .

It was a DoD flight, we still can’t talk about the payload or what we accomplished, but it was my first flight and it was a high inclination flight when most of the early shuttle flights had been low inclination.  High inclination means the orbit goes further north and south than usual, “inclination” being the technical term for the angle at which the orbit crosses the equator which is equivalent to the highest latitude (north or south) that the orbit reaches. 

Your first flight is full of overconfidence and fear at the same time.  There was a lot that the training had given me but there was a lot that I didn’t know.  And was about to find out.  For good reason, first time flight director’s are put on the planning shift:  the crew is asleep and there is little to nothing happening in space, the flight control team on that shift is to see if any modifications are required to the pre-flight plan for the next day and get those sent up to the crew (in those days by teleprinter).  I have seen many a senior flight director come in for shift change, read the flight plan updates that the rookie flight director’s team built “overnight” and throw them in the trash.  It is not a confidence building experience.  As a matter of fact, the Orbit 1 Team Flight Director is usually the Lead Flight Director who has been doing nothing but preparing exclusively for this particular flight for the better part of a year pre-flight.  Therefore he knows more about what the objectives are and how to accomplish them than anybody else. The Orbit 1 Team Flight Director is always a senior, seasoned, experienced, Flight Director who knows the astronaut crew members personally.  The Planning Team Flight Director is usually the rookie, usually assigned two months before the flight, nervous and cocky at the same time.  There may be a few big egos in the Flight Director Office (that was ironic — there are lots of big egos there).

Anyway, about the fourth night, I got a call from one of the back room guys that I had only been briefed about, they never participated in the simulations.  I was ready for leaks to appear in the EECOM systems (like they did on Lee Briscoe’s first flight on the planning shift), thrusters to fail off in the RCS system, IMU dilemmas to appear in the GNC systems.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the etherial call over the headset from SRAG.  I say etherial because most of the operators are present in the Flight Control Room.  I could throw an eraser or something harder at them if they weren’t playing by the rules. But SRAG lived alone in a locked room upstairs in Mission Control.  If this were the ‘day shift’ when the crew was awake, there would have been a Flight Surgeon on console and SRAG would have talked with them, but when the crew goes to bed, the Surgeons leave.  Always on call,  but assuming that nothing too bad can happen during crew sleep.

SRAG is about as bad as it gets.  The acronym stands for “Space Radiation Analysis Group” and that is as bad a subject as you can get into.  They have ‘technical methods’ that we don’t talk about.  Anyway, they called and said there had been a Solar ‘event’.  I love it we use euphemisms.  I had been briefed on solar ‘events’ and when SRAG reported that on the Flight Loop, I almost came out of my chair.  It was, as I clearly recall, about 2 AM in Houston.  All the really scary things in human space flight seem to happen at 2 AM. 

SRAG said they were coming down to see me in person.  This is really bad.  That means they didn’t want to talk about it on the Flight Loop because too many people around the world can monitor the conversations on the Flight Loop.  This is bad.  I spent a nervous 10 minutes chewing my fingernails as they made their way into the FCR.  In hushed tones they described the problem:  a major solar eruption that was sending electromagnetic radiation and highly charged particles toward the earth.  Early analysis said this would exceed the crew health limits when it got to us.  They advised taking no action now, they needed to do more analysis, and would be back with an update in an hour or so.  Then they left the FCR.  Quietly.  And I was left alone with my thoughts.  I pulled out the flight rules and read over the ones dealing with space radiation.  The numbers SRAG predicted called for an emergency deorbit to protect the crew.  This was no drill.  I got on the phone and called my boss.  When you are chief of the Flight Director Office, you expect to get some number of calls at 2:30 in the morning.

Lee told me to take a deep breath and call me when they came back with their analysis in an hour.

It was a long hour.  Waiting.

It turned into an hour and a half.  Two hours.  I couldn’t stand it any more and broadcasted blind on the Flight Loop:  “SRAG, this is FLIGHT, please come to the FCR”.  “Be there an a few minutes, Flight” came the disembodied reply.

15 long minutes later the door popped open and the SRAG guys (they always traveled in a group) came in.  In hushed tones they explained that their initial estimate had been high.  More observations indicated the radiation would be lower.  By this time I had memorized the radiation limit table in the Flight Rules.  Now we were at the level where the flight could continue only if there were high priority mission objectives to accomplish.  We were past that.  But it was no longer an emergency deorbit question, maybe a deorbit the next day at the opportunity for the primary landing site.  Ahh.  The Orbit 1 Flight Director could make that call, and scramble the Entry team if required.  Should I tell the crew?  “Don’t worry them Flight, we’ll know more in a few hours”.  After they left, I called my boss back and the Orbit 1 Flight Director (a couple of hours before his normal wake up time) and told them we might be looking at mission termination when the day shift came in. 

It seemed like just a few minutes later when the Orbit 1 Flight Director showed up in the FCR, fully awake and dressed.  He wasn’t going to let the rookie Flight Director end his mission early!  He listened to my briefing, told me I didn’t know jack . . .and flew out of the FCR to the locked SRAG room and beat on the door until they let him in. 

I left shift not knowing if the shuttle was going to deorbit in eight hours or not.  I crashed at home after the long sleepless night.  Hours later I woke up and called the MCC.  No deorbit today. 

On my shift the next evening, the SRAG guys had a new and lower prediction:  normal mission duration would be the plan.  They would have some “words for the crew” on their return.  What a wild night it had been.

After the crew landed, the doc’s met them and explained that they had probably received the biggest dose of radiation ever received by a space crew.  The Commander and his guys were NOT HAPPY.  You never want your Commander to be NOT HAPPY. 

Before the Crew debrief with the Flight Directors, the results from the onboard dosimeters were available.  Nowadays those results are on telemetry and available in “real time” during the mission.  But in the early days, they were only readable on the ground, post flight.  The results were:  . . .. normal levels of exposure.  The predictions had been wrong.  All of us on the ground who knew about the solar flare had been worried unnecessarily.  And the crew had  been furious, unnecessarily.

Later, we were briefed on improvements made to the radiation prediction tools.  And the folks that study such things said it would be awfully hard to get a significant dose of radiation inside the shuttle (not hard on EVA, though) since we fly below the Van Allen Belts; even at high latitudes.  Years more of study have improved our understanding, monitoring, and predicting even more.

What did I learn?  A lot.  But most importantly, always tell the crew.  That may have been one of my first, best, lessons as a Flight Director.

True story?  Absolutely.   At least the way I remember it . . . .