In the days before Harvey struck Texas, flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center outside of Houston had a choice to make: if they evacuate or ride out the storm in the bureau’s Mission Control Center? The dilemma was not just about the security of the flight controls. These employees are tasked with flying the International Space Station — a round-the-clock job which can not be done just everywhere. When there’s a gap in floor communication, it might place the astronauts at risk.
“It is 100 percent the flight controllers on the ground flying the space station,” Zebulon Scoville, NASA’s lead flight director of Expedition 52 for the International Space Station, informs The Verge. “If that capacity is lost, then that may be a risk to the assignment.”
There are numerous tasks that flight controls can do remotely, like tracking ISS data that is sent down to Earth. But when it comes to sending orders to the orbiting laboratory, that needs to be performed on site at JSC. Flight controllers must be at the Mission Control Center and logged in to do so, primarily for security reasons. In any given month, somewhere around 50,000 commands are sent to the ISS — including things like orbit correction maneuvers to maintain the vehicle in a secure place around Earth or to set the station from harm’s way from space debris.
Needless to say, JSC is no stranger to storms and NASA does have its own backup plans for disaster scenarios on the floor. This facility has lots of spaceflight infrastructure and might possibly support operations for weeks.
They realized that whatever struck Texas would probably hit Round Rock, also, which is located outside of Austin. Additionally, Harvey’s real threat looked to be the water in contrast to the winds.
However, the team also knew they needed to prepare. “Where you do not need to wind up is just one flight controller at any position who can not leave because there’s no one to replace them,” states Scoville. Therefore the flight controllers were advised to come into work early and to be sure they had a way to both enter and leave the centre safely. Meanwhile, cots were set up in a nearby area and at a building that functions as an astronaut quarantine centre, where astronauts quarantine before launching to prevent becoming sick in space. “We have training rooms which are a mere replica of the flight control room,” says Scoville. “They have the exact same consoles and same displays, but we turned off the lights and set some cots inside there. It was interesting to find these rooms usually lit up with all these displays blacked out for people to sleep.”
Through the weekend, Mission Control worked with the bare minimum necessary personnel necessary to keep the ISS functioning safely. Usually, flight controller teams operate in nine-hour shifts, swapping out three times each day. Throughout the storm, just about six flight controllers worked each change, and a few stretched their shifts to 12 hours. Because the flood made the roads impassable, everybody had to spend a few nights at NASA.
Despite a skeleton crew, things are more or less normal at the middle. “In terms of operations of these vehicles, it has been moving exceedingly smoothly,” says Scoville. The controllers boosted the channel slightly last week to get ready for the coming of a new Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which will bring three new team members to the ISS in mid-September. The team currently aboard the station was fully occupied with their regular schedules, also, and NASA made certain to reach out to their families, many of whom reside in the Houston area, to see whether they did well throughout the storm. But hardly any work was lost. “From an astronaut standpoint, it is business as usual,” says Scoville.
Scoville says that he spent all the storm working remotely, so that he did not become a liability to the flight controls. It was a difficult decision: he wanted to be there with his co-workers. “There was a sense of helplessness, in which you need to get down and help,” says Scoville. “However, in many cases the streets were only impassable unless you had a truck or ship. So you kind of had to watch as people play with their coordinated and parts for substitute flight controllers and had access to food.”
“These people were just in great spirits,” he says. “They had been looking in amazing shape with great morale and they could have kept going if we had not out them.”
JSC remains closed and will continue to function with only essential employees until September 5th. Scoville says there has been an outpouring of support for the flight controls, but to him that is not the story. He says that the focus should be on the first responders and individuals rescuing others from their houses with ships and pickup trucks. For the people of NASA, it is all about doing their jobs. “We fly the space station not just when it’s simple but when it’s challenging.”
Images are taken from nasa