Tag Archives: space flight

Flight Director Fables

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Aesop’s fables have been famous for two millennia.  They are obviously fictional stories – animals talking and such – but they are still useful for teaching important concepts to children – and adults.

 

When I joined the Flight Director office there were a number of fables that we were taught.  Supposedly true, I cannot say that they really are.  But the moral of these stories was the point.  I’ll share just two with you today.

 

First Fable:  how to end your career quickly.

 

Gemini 8 was as close a call as American had in space up to that time.  Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott had just completed America’s first space docking between their Gemini spacecraft and an Agena target vehicle.  Suddenly, the stack started spinning up for no apparent reason.  Emergency undock was performed by the crew who hoped that the problem was with the Agena.  It was not, the spin rate increased more dramatically after separation.  Armstrong shut off the Gemini spacecraft’s primary attitude control system and activated the secondary system which was designed for limited use during re-entry.  Attitude control was regained, the crisis averted, everybody started breathing again. 

 

The Flight Rules called for an immediate deorbit once the re-entry attitude control system was activated; it had limited fuel and limited life.  So Flight Director John Hodge (Blue Flight) had the team execute a rapid deorbit to the secondary landing site in the Pacific Ocean near the destroyer USS Mason.  You might think that was the right thing to do.

 

Unfortunately . . . .

NASA management found out about the situation after the crew was in the ocean.  According to the legend, Hodge did not take the time to pick up the phone and call the Program Manager, the Center Director, or even his boss, the Chief of the Flight Director office.  The situation was stable, and even though waiting around was not necessarily a good thing, there was no reason that a couple of hours delay would have significantly increased the crew risk.  Upper management was severely out of sorts with Blue Flight because they were not called in to review a critical action that really could have waited, despite what the Flight Rules called for.

 

Bottom line:  John Hodge never served as Flight Director in Mission Control again.

 

Now, that is the way the story was told to us wide-eyed Flight Director wannabees.  Is it true?  Is it accurate?  Is it complete?  I have no way of knowing.  Probably not. 

 

But that is not the point of the fable.  The moral of the story for all rookie Flight Directors is ALWAYS INVOLVE YOUR MANAGEMENT.   Any time that a critical action can reasonably be delayed for even a few minutes GET ON THE PHONE WITH THE BOSS.  No matter what the Flight Rules say.  After all, it’s just your career on the line . . .

 

Second Fable:  Lies will catch up with you.

 

A long time ago, it seems hard to imagine now, there were no privacy laws and the press was ALWAYS interested in crew health.  Since about 60% of all astronauts have ‘space adaptation syndrome’ for the first three days of weightlessness.  The press could always get a good barf story.  Sometimes it seems like journalists never left the 5th grade.  Today a Flight Director can respond to questions about crew upchuckitis by saying “Detailed discussions about crew health are covered by the medical privacy act.  I can tell you that there has been no mission impact from any crew health issues.”  There is rarely any mission impact these days because we have learned to build a light schedule the first few days to allow the crew to get past the need for the emesis bags. 

 

In the early days of shuttle, such niceties did not exist.  Every eight hours the offgoing Flight Director had a post-shift press conference and had to withstand the barrage of questions from the media, who were just hoping to get some human interest story out of the tight lipped and technical NASA officials.  John Cox, Granite Flight, kept drawing the “space sickness” questions.  He made the huge mistake of putting out a fib:  ‘Crew is doing fine, no problems to speak of”  in one of the early press conferences.  A day later, the crew was definitely NOT doing fine, activities had been cancelled.  But Granite Flight kept up the pretense.  The press corps was suspicious.  By the third day Granite Flight’s denials fell apart and the media went into witch-hunt frenzy.  The video tape of that heated press conference is kept in the Flight Director training catalog and it is ugly with a capital U.  The head of Flight Medicine, Dr. Sam Poole, had to come in and save Dr. Cox.  Sam put a soft spin on things and more or less diffused the issue, but the damage was done.  Granite Flight’s credibility with the media was in the dumpster.

 

Now, is that the entire, completely accurate story?  Probably not.  But we all had to watch that press conference videotape knowing that we would be in that hot seat in the very near future.  The moral of the story:  DON’T LIE TO THE PRESS.  They will find out sooner or later and it will be very bad. 

 

Whenever people ask me how to deal with the media, I reply: “The first rule is tell the truth, never lie.  You will be found out and your credibility will be gone from then on.”  I’ve had lots of practice with press events after learning that less from poor old Granite Flight, and I can confirm it’s true.

 

John Cox was a great Flight Director and served for many mission.  I have a great deal of respect for him, not the least of which is that he dug his way out of that hole.

 

Remember, everybody is useful, sometimes just as an example of what not to do.

Lucky Tie

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Even though I’m far from home and even farther from LC-39, I’ll be wearing my lucky shuttle tie tomorrow.  That is a particularly silly thing to do since the tie isn’t even very lucky.  We had plenty of launch scrubs when I wore that tie on launch day in either Mission Control or Launch Control.

But its what I can do to show my solidarity with the team these days.  NASA is one of the few organizations that puts it all on the line in public.  Most organizations have some kind of cover, but when the launch doesn’t go right, there is no cover.  The OCO boys sweated over a great spacecraft but some glitch in the fairing separation circuit got them.  That hurts. 

Tomorrow evening we’ll try to launch seven folks into low earth orbit.  That may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is far from a guaranteed success.  So cross your fingers, get out your four leaf clover, or whatever it takes, and lets hope for success.  One more time.

I’m out in Utah doing some management work for the agency, looking at the facilities which might be used for the next human carrying rocket.  It was particularly exciting because I got to walk right up to the first Orion Launch Escape rocket.  This beast will burn several thousand pounds of solid propellant in less than four seconds to get a crew out of trouble in a hurry.  Rocket serial number 00001 is out there on the factory floor ready to ship to White Sands Missile Range where it will be tested later this year. 

Overall, I saw lots of Ares 1 hardware.  The DM-1 (development motor) is a five segment giant that will be tested in late summer.  Everywhere I went we saw lots of new hardware coming together for the first time.  Progress is being made.

Sadly, I was in the refurbishment shop where they are working on the last set of shuttle booster hardware.  The old bird will be retired at the end of next year and any future refurbishments, if any, will be to make hardware available for the new Ares birds.

It has been particularly busy in space; a spacewalk today at the International Space Station was fully successful; the new Kepler telescope is being checked out after a successful delivery to space.   A few days ago there was a successful parachute test for the Constellation program.  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is in final checkout on the ground.  Everywhere I go there is progress being made! 

But lets all watch tomorrow, because as we all know, its far from a sure thing.

Serendipity – Part 5

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I’m going to round out this little series on the serendipity of space travel with a discussion of what we have learned about the human body in space.  There are probably a thousand blogs that I could write on the serendipity of space travel so we will come back to this topic in the future.

Before 1961 the medical community was almost unanimous that space travel would be fatal to human beings.  Not only would it be impossible to swallow food or water without the affect of gravity, but the circulatory system would completely break down, fluids accumulate in the wrong places and the heart would not be able to pump blood adequately.

Early flights with mammals and then primates showed significant changes and while the animals generally survived, there were serious questions.  The first few manned flights were nail biters.  Fortunately everybody came back alive.  And some of the worst predictions were quickly shown to be false; for example swallowing is as much a function of peristalsis as it is gravity.  But serious changes in the human body did show up.

For exposure to zero gravity for a week or two, the human body showed remarkable adaptation ability.  But there were several close calls and many warning signs that things would not be well for longer duration flights.  The Skylab flights concentrated on trying to understand some of these changes and came back with alarming results.  Subsequently, many Space Shuttle flight experiments and studies refined the issues.  The redistribution of fluids in the cardiovascular system, changes in the structure of the bones and muscles, all were studied in detail through many shuttle flights and most effectively on the SpaceLab Life Sciences flights.

Some of the close calls that happened in the early shuttle days have still not been widely discussed.  But coping mechanisms, drug therapies, exercise protocols, and other means to control or reverse some of the physiological affects of zero gravity have been honed to a high degree.  Work continues on the International Space Station with long duration solutions as the goal.

We have found out a lot about the human body in space.  It is remarkably adaptable.  But there are limits and countermeasures must be applied and refined. 

Much of this work has application to medicine here on earth.  Many of the processes that accelerate in zero gravity are like the affects of aging.  Countermeasures for zero gravity can find some applications with older folks here on the ground.

Scientific journals are full of this stuff, yet it is so technical and the jargon so dense, these extraordinary findings are largely ignored by the media and thus by the general population.  In medical improvements for human life alone, the space program has more than paid for itself.

Next week I am on travel and we’ll see if I can continue this blog remotely!  If not, the problem won’t be with the internet but with the operator (me!).  See you then, I hope.