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NASA Space Science

Behind the Scenes At NASA's Mission Control Center 38

willith writes "I was recently given the opportunity to spend several hours on the floor of Historic Mission Operations Control Room #2, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. MOCR2 was used to control almost manned Gemini and Apollo mission, including Apollo 11 & 13. More, my tour guide was none other than famous Apollo mission controller Sy Liebergot, one of the fellows behind the solution that saved Apollo 13. I go in-depth on the role of the flight controller during Apollo, and focus on how and why Mission Control functioned, and I spend a lot of time talking about the consoles and how they worked. The feature includes a ton of anecdotes and stories from Mr. Liebergot about mission control in general, and about what he did during Apollo 12 & 13 specifically. I also put together a supplemental report that goes through each and every station and describes their Apollo-era layout."
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Behind the Scenes At NASA's Mission Control Center

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  • by pecosdave ( 536896 ) * on Friday November 02, 2012 @12:50AM (#41850271) Homepage Journal

    He designed the P-Tube controller boards, any time we're involved with tourist he shows those boards off.

  • by ModernGeek ( 601932 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @12:58AM (#41850299)
    Which Apollo Missions didn't happen in that room? I thought that Gemini flights were hosted somewhere else, but I could see why they'd want to practice for Apollo through the Gemini flights in that room. Definitely explains the Gemini patches on the wall. Was it retooled after Gemini? I remember hearing that NASA offered it to the Apollo 13 Movie, but that they built a set instead that was so realistic that NASA employees on an advisory role would find themselves looking for the elevator that existed at the real one on their way out. I'm glad that the control room has been well preserved.
  • Thank you so much! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by skidisk ( 994551 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:22AM (#41850399)

    This is wonderful information -- I'm so glad to finally know it all. Thank you for the thorough documentation! I grew up at 1927 Richvale Lane, just a short bike ride from building 30. We were the first 25 houses there when it was all pastures, wild animals and bayous, and the Manned Spacecraft Center was brand new. My dad worked on Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and then shuttle. We had dinners with the guys who worked there, as well as with the astronauts and their families. Of course, I was just a kid and thought is was all cool but no big deal. In retrospect, I can now see how magical it was. Everyone in the entire community was working together for something so optimistic and positive during a pretty lousy time otherwise, with assassinations, the war, and violent protests and riots.

    But we were immune to it because everyone was 100% focused on getting a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade. I guess that's why I like startups so much -- it's the same focus on a single objective with everyone pulling together. We don't change the world as the 100,000 engineers did on the 60s, but it's all we have left these days.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @02:43AM (#41850609) Homepage

    Krantz's book, "Failure is not an Option", covers much of this material, with more information about the people at those consoles and what they did.

    Those Philco-Ford console systems showed up in a number of other places, including NORAD HQ in Cheyenne Mountain and the USAF Satellite Control Center in Sunnyvale. Those screens are TV screens on a cable TV system, with a TV tuner in the console. All video generation is elsewhere. Anyone on the system could tune in anyone's screen. Military command and control centers are often set up with that capability even today. It makes coordinated teamwork possible without people having to physically hang around the console where the action is.

  • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Friday November 02, 2012 @07:16AM (#41851363) Homepage

    From TFA:

    "In the movies, a spacecraft launch is often accompanied by bombastic music and the seat-juddering bass of rockets thundering, with shots of flight controllers frantically mashing buttons intercut with shaky-cam special effects of the launch vehicle clawing its way skyward. I asked Sy about what a person actually experienced while sitting at a console during launch, and it turns out that reality, again, is a very different place from fiction."

    The author should learn what he's talking about - the room usually shown during launch (particularly during Apollo 13) is the LCC, not MOCR. The LCC is located adjacent to the VAB at Cape Kennedy and controls the testing, checkout, launch, and flight of the vehicle until it clears the tower, at which point the MOCR takes over.

    He's also seems unaware that there's any media other than mini-series and fiction... If you're really interested in the MOCR, and wish for a less slack-jawed account, try and find a copy of Murray & Cox's Apollo (sometimes subtitled "Race to the Moon"). (Hard copies are expensive and collectible sadly.) In 1994 was Apollo along with Lovell's Apollo 13 that first actually discussed the MOCR in detail and kicked off the modern wave of more serious and less starry-eyed books about the Apollo Program.

  • by k6mfw ( 1182893 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:41PM (#41855125)

    Sy Liebergot also said those handles on side of monitor are referred as "security handles" for situations when the controller gets worried when things are going wrong. He can grab on to those handles like a scared child holding onto mommy.

    I had fortunate opportunity to have Sy for our featured speaker at an Engineers Week banquet in 1996. Sy said Hollywood built a replicate MOCR because need to remove certain consoles for particular camera angles. But this MOCR replica was made so well, it was spooky. Everything was made to detail including ashtrays full of cigarette butts and all those documents in binders and hanging on clipboards behind the controllers were all reprints [or at least as much as they can get] of Apollo 13 flight plan. Speaking of documentation, much of that was thrown out. Some of the controllers saved material and they knew those flights were historic but there's just so much that can be saved. And everything was re-written for the next mission. Liebergot said Skylab was the worst in terms of paperwork, there was tons of it (maybe too much). He also said Skylab was the most demanding, i.e. rotating shifts. It was during this period when that had highest divorce rate for those working in mission control.

    Sy was not alone with his EECOM, he had a few guys in backroom with more extensive displays including stripchart recorders. He had no idea what happened when Apollo CSM O2 tank exploded, his first reaction is it was an instrumentation problem because so many systems went overrange like what you would see if PCM data stream gets corrupted. Obviously shortly later they realized an explosion occurred. After his shift he went back to the EECOM support room and saw the stripchart of O2 tank temperature. Trace is level then begins climbing at switch closure of tank stir, trace slopes up until it drops vertically, then rails to top of chart (or bottom, I forgot which but I made a custom coffee mug with this O2 temperature trace and titled, "It's gotta be instrumentation!"

    No smoking is allowed in federal buildings these days. Gene Kranz at a AIAA meeting in 1990s said, "us old guys need to smuggle in some 'victory cigars.'"

    Another excellent book as recommended by both Liebergot and Kranz is "Apollo: Race to the Moon" by Charles Murray and Catherine Cox. It describes much detail of the program including "mission control" that consists of MOCR, SPAN, and MER. I was most impressed with Mission Evaluation Room headed by Don "Mad Don" Arabian. This room consisted of design development engineers, tables, documentation, blueprints, and telephones for these guys to call respective contractors i.e. North American, Grumman, etc. whenever problems occurred. Liebergot said MOCR deals with realtime, MER deals with fix-its (i.e. "we have funny readings on this instrument." MER says "we'll look into it and get back with you later on." Don Arabian said of his room, "We don't need any damn fancy consoles or anything!" He also said, "When something goes wrong those guys in MOCR ain't got the foggiest idea what to do." Another quote of NASA HQ in Washington DC, "Hubcaps, useless ornamentation." Liebergot said of Arabian that yes he was mad and wild, a slash-and-burn type of guy. However, if you want someone for a lively speaker who still remembers much of the details of Apollo systems, that is Don. Sy Liebergot says he is able to remember much details because people keep asking him same questions.

The primary function of the design engineer is to make things difficult for the fabricator and impossible for the serviceman.