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NASA United States Science Technology

How NASA Kept the ISS Flying While Harvey Hit Mission Control (theverge.com) 128

An anonymous reader shares a report: In the days before Harvey hit Texas, flight controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center outside of Houston had a decision to make: should they evacuate or ride out the storm at the agency's Mission Control Center? The dilemma wasn't just about the safety of the flight controllers. These personnel are tasked with flying the International Space Station -- a round-the-clock job that can't be done just anywhere. If there's a gap in ground communication, it could put the astronauts in danger. [...] On August 22nd, three days before the storm hit, the mission team was briefed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and decided the best plan was to stay put. They realized that whatever hit Texas would likely hit Round Rock, too, which is located outside of Austin. Plus, Harvey's real danger looked to be the water rather than the winds. The building containing the Mission Control Center is designed to withstand flooding incredibly well. But the team also knew they had to prepare. "Where you don't want to find yourself is just a single flight controller in any position who can't leave because there's no one to replace them," says Scoville. So the flight controllers were told to come into work early and to make sure they had a way to both enter and leave the center safely. Many showed up Friday night with "big, monstrous climbing backpacks," says Scoville. Meanwhile, cots were set up in a nearby room and in a building that serves as an astronaut quarantine facility, where astronauts quarantine before launch to avoid getting sick in space. "We have training rooms that are a mere copy of the flight control room," says Scoville. "They have the same consoles and same screens, but we turned off the lights and put some cots in there. It was interesting to see these rooms usually lit up with all these screens blacked out for people to sleep." Throughout the weekend, Mission Control operated with the bare minimum essential personnel needed to keep the ISS working safely. Normally, flight controller teams work in nine-hour shifts, swapping out three times a day. During the storm, only about six flight controllers worked each shift, and some stretched their shifts to 12 hours. Because the flooding made the roads impassable, everyone had to spend a couple of nights at NASA.
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How NASA Kept the ISS Flying While Harvey Hit Mission Control

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I don't know how things work in TX, but in FL, that shit is build like a bomb-shelter.

  • stretched shifts? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by JeffSh ( 71237 )

    lol, 12 hour stretch shifts? man really burning the midnight oil on this one clem.

    • by mlw4428 ( 1029576 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:10PM (#55117333)
      12 hour shifts managing not only the lives of 6 people, but also ~$150 billion in costs (not including human lives currently onboard), and an internationally coordinated project that has taken damn near 19 years. Imagine being the guy who buffed up and destroyed all of that. Goodbye career.
      • 12 hour shifts managing not only the lives of 6 people, but also ~$150 billion in costs (not including human lives currently onboard), and an internationally coordinated project that has taken damn near 19 years. Imagine being the guy who buffed up and destroyed all of that. Goodbye career.

        I don't think people camped out for three days for the chance to work 12-hour shifts because they were thinking about their careers.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      These are government employees. Their normal shifts only actually consist.of 3 hours of work, half an hour morning coffee, 2 hour lunch break and a copious amour of porn surfing. Plus, they then get the complain to each other time of their benefits being cut because the stupid public doesn't get how hard their job is and they deserve more. Them sleeping like this is their Bataan death march.

    • Re:stretched shifts? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:13PM (#55117363) Homepage Journal

      I hope they gave those folks a couple doses of Modafinil to keep them going. Early, right after waking up. The drug puts you into a mode like when you've got work due soon, and you're not panicked, but you're dead-focused on it--it's the mode your brain goes into when there might be tigers around, but you haven't found a tiger hunting you yet, so you're on high alert so you don't die. You get a headache and you forget about it in 4 seconds, and notice it every hour or so and don't bother getting a Tylenol because you have other shit to do.

      Not only does it make the long shift tolerable, but it makes the exhaustion from that kind of overwork go away. Stuff lasts 14 hours, so you take it early because it's not so nice to sleep on (you can, but it's nice to have it out of your system).

      I got some for ADHD, but it caused the most severe depression that can exist after a few weeks of daily use. That's not even a listed side-effect, and I had slept... pretty much not at all for a year prior. Amphetamine also causes depression while it's active: I don't sleep for 26 hours and I feel kind of lethargic and dysphoric until the drug wears off--but not fatigued. My psychiatrist finally gave me Strattera instead and it caused serotonin mania at full dose; it's working at the current dose, and I want to try trimming it back a bit to see if I can get more energy and less emotional suppression without a relapse of never-ending insomnia and uncontrollable impulsiveness.

      Modafinil, by the way, is prescribed for shift work syndrome. If they're interrupting their circadian rhythm, that's what the drug is for, so says the FDA. A real doctor who can actually give medical advice would have to have a look to make sure they're not taking any drugs with bad interactions; it's a good ask before you put people under this kind of strain.

      In my opinion, we should be investigating the viability of statutory availability for certain temporary, high-strain, high-risk situations--disaster response, long-hour surgery, and so forth--because those situations are miserable and mistakes mean people die. If this is a proper and safe tool for these critical situations, then it's ludicrous for us not to use it.

      • So, not saying that "drugs are bad" or anything, but also having well adjusted ground control crew who can function well without pharmaceuticals is a good option.

        Stretching a 9 hour shift to 12 isn't bad at all, especially with the excitement of the storm, the pajama party at work, and the not being able to go anywhere because the roads are flooded. I do wonder how "at risk" the staff's personal cars were during the storm. Mission Control isn't far at all from the Clear Lake / Mud Lake corner, even if the

        • Why would the parking lot be at double capacity. Haven't these people heard of car sharing? Agree on your buddy - who'll be most likely the closest colleague to your house, compare cars. Whichever is either most disposable, or most disinterested in flooding (*), and the two of you take that to work with a rig bag full of clothes, doss bag (**), and no-refrigeration food.

          (*) eg, a working van with vinyl flooring and plastic seats, with a high fuel filler cap. Gets flooded a metre deep, drain out, hose out m

        • also having well adjusted ground control crew who can function well without pharmaceuticals is a good option.

          The ground control crew aren't super-humans. They may be better-adjusted to functioning under stress, but they will degrade from their own baseline under stress. My impression is that these people are getting less sleep and being put under more-critical conditions than usual, thus will be under high stress. Just staying on a task for that long causes a loss of vigilance--you start to pay less attention if it's uneventful, and you start to break down from strain if it's highly-engaging.

          This is more-app

      • I hope they gave those folks a couple doses of Modafinil to keep them going.

        Speaking as someone who has probably more than 25 years more experience of working 12 hour on-site shifts than you, I severely hope that they don't think about that. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of oil rig workers in the (logical, if not physical) proximity of Houston who have long experience of seeing people sacked for taking undeclared pharmaceuticals (prescription or not) to work with them.

        If you can't do a 12-hour

        • people sacked for taking undeclared pharmaceuticals (prescription or not) to work with them

          Presumably "they" who would "give" would be of an official capacity for the site. In highly-critical situations with unusual amounts of stress, a vigilance agent provides important advantages. The USAF has gone as far as to remove amphetamine from its list of field-approved drugs, switching to non-abusable and non-harmful vigilance agents such as Modafinil or Armodafinil; these are provided notably to jet pilots who must do long runs wherein they fly a plane continuously for 40 hours, without stopping, w

          • We're cowboys over here and like to ride into fire without plan and without consideration for just how much shit can go wrong. It's a behavior that needs to change.

            Yes, I've seen the pained look on the faces of American staff when their sincere proclamation that "we intend to run this operation in your country to American standards and not lower them" gets the rejoinder from the government representative that "this operation will be supervised and managed to our standards and not lowered to American standar

    • this is seriously a no brainer for nasa. they are located in a coastal region. weather happens every year. if the residents would think like that..
    • Absolutely normal. For safety critical staff, the choices are 24/7/365 (which for senior supervisory staff is OK), or 12-12/7/365 (2 people on 12 hour shifts), or 8-8-8/7/365 (8 hour shifts). I've worked them all. I've worked them all in one week (crisis happens 24hr cover, sleep when you can ; additional personnel arrive and go to 8-8-8 while exhausted person recuperates ; crisis over, one person departs and remainder go onto 12-12 for remainder of their month or two on site).

      This isn't rocket science, an

  • Should fly itself (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    The ISS is in orbit. Aside from occasional boost or corrective burns, it will continue to orbit without any assistance from mission control. Most likely they have several people on duty to sit and watch the screens but there is next-to-no air or resistance at that altitude and it will continue to orbit without additional energy input.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by cellocgw ( 617879 )

      The level of ignorance is astonishlngly high in this one, Obi-Wan.

      • It will do exactly that, stay in orbit (in a short time frame). It's not GP's fault that the headline is ambiguous.
    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      Well, "fall to the Earth but miss" is probably a more accurate description of what an orbiting object does than "fly".

  • Surely NASA has a backup in case of a disaster like this? What if there was a fire in the building? Can they not move mission control to Florida as a backup?

    • Look up "Hurricane Andrew" to see why that's a bad idea.

      I agree that there should be a backup, but maybe one of the first considerations in having a backup site is selecting a location that is unlikely to be hit by hurricanes because your primary site could get hit by hurricanes.

      • by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:33PM (#55117521)

        The main backup is likely to be the Russian control room at RKK Energia. I don't recall whether it has access to the TDRSS system that provides continuous coverage to the ISS, but they can certainly communicate and manage the station from there.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The Russian control room is a big no go. Can you just imagine all the investigations that would be launched to determine who may have "colluded" with Russia and possibly participated in illegal technology transfers that may have violated US sanctions during the cutover process? We would have to double the number of Senators, Representatives, FBI agents, NSA agents, CIA agents, and independent investigators to get it all sorted out. It would be a lot less painful just to watch the IIS de-orbit and crash. The

      • by sphealey ( 2855 )

        = = = I agree that there should be a backup, but maybe one of the first considerations in having a backup site is selecting a location that is unlikely to be hit by hurricanes because your primary site could get hit by hurricanes. = = =
        Particularly since there are several "well-used" hurricane tracks that can whack Canaveral, Huntsville, and Houston in one sweep.

    • Surely NASA has a backup in case of a disaster like this? What if there was a fire in the building? Can they not move mission control to Florida as a backup?

      You'd think they would have to in case of war. It may just be a few people up in space with an expensive space station NASA really don't have much interest in maintaining any more... but the loss off the space station at any time with American (or allied) astronauts on board would be a huge loss to the morale of the nation.

      • If Houston has just been nuked, I don't thing anyone is really going to notice the loss of the ISS.

        • Washington DC is far more likely to be the first nuked than Houston.

          My bet is that the bomb is already there, in a shipping container somewhere quiet. It's not like it needs to be on the White House lawn,

    • Can they not move mission control to Florida as a backup?

      A 'hot spare' MCC (Mission Control Center) would be extraordinarily expensive to build and maintain for what's actually a fairly rare event. Even a 'cold spare' would be very expensive.

  • Inertia! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    How NASA Kept the ISS Flying While Harvey Hit Mission Control?

    Inertia!

    • This is pretty much what I was thinking.

      How did they do it? Oh, they just didn't fiddle with the knobs for 24 hours...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, I think that they got on the radio and said "This is Houston. We've got a problem."

  • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:06PM (#55117303) Homepage

    When you get to the level of working at Mission Control, it should be no surprise that the flight controllers are that beyond dedicated - they also understand the importance of the job as well as the danger to the astronauts so the idea of working overtime where they might make a mistake is anathema to them.

    Having been there and knowing that flooding happens every few years in the area, I'm surprised that they don't have backup sites where the controllers can work in the case of a disaster like this. Long term, the Mission Control Center has a lot of required resources, like the training rooms, so keeping everything in one place is the right way to do things.

    I'm not sure what the communications (security) requirements are, but I would think there should be the ability to temporarily relocate. Maybe something will be planned after Harvey - although it might be as simple as equipping/converting some rooms as dormitories for the controllers.

    • by Strider- ( 39683 )

      The main issue with moving the operation is maintaining continuity, and training. Someone can't just drop into the job and become a flight controller, and we don't have Star Trek transporters. So lets say they establish a backup control center in, say, South Dakota. When switching to that backup, you need to be absolutely sure that it's going to work, and you have to move your team lock stock and barrel there to be ready for a seamless cutover.

      Unfortunately I can't remember the exact mission, but I think it

      • by mysidia ( 191772 )

        and there was no way to contact the person who knew the information because he was in transit.

        Dang.. if only they had invented portable communications devices, that important people could carry around with them at all times so they could make or receive messages on the road....

        • by Strider- ( 39683 )

          When you're in transit, you generally don't have access to all the information you would otherwise, nor do you have access to the same communications networks and facilities. Yes, I've pulled off feats of networking from my phone while on my boat, but that doesn't change the fact that if you have an expert in transit, in bad conditions, things can go pear shaped very easily.

          • First time I flew with a crackberry (2004) I used it to access the internet and find some info I needed - took over an hour to painfully load the pages and click through to the info. Same thing from conventional terminals took less than a minute.

      • I know that some knowledge gets stuck between two particular ears, but for the most part, there should be a minimum of 6 trained operators for every station working 3 shifts. Cunding futbacks be damned, if it's mission critical, you can't have the whole house come down just because some guy gets shot by a crazy ex-girlfriend or something.

    • It is a long long way from Mission Control to where the flooding from Harvey isn't serious - might as well transfer to Huntsville, or Round Rock, or Canberra for that matter - personally, I'd rather have my car parked at Bush International (high in a garage - not on the roof), during a heavy water storm event instead of spitting distance to Clear Lake.

      I lived very near mission control during Hurricane Rita, I prepped the house for the storm - and that was a colossal mistake, instead of putting up (inadequat

  • Scoville who? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:35PM (#55117533) Homepage Journal

    The first time you mention someone, you should give their full name and job description, e.g. Dr Scoville K. Capsacain III, mission control controller, said ... .

    That way readers know who the Holy fucking Mary he is.

  • Moscow (Score:4, Insightful)

    by inhuman_4 ( 1294516 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:39PM (#55117563)
    I thought Moscow was already setup to handle the ISS in case something happened to Houston. The Russians ran Mir for over a decade I'm sure they can handle the ISS for a few days.
    • by mysidia ( 191772 )

      They may have the facilities, but do they have the People and required information specific to the ISS?

      • by Strider- ( 39683 )

        Yes. When conducting spacewalks out of the Russian segment of the station, mission control in Moscow is the prime. Additionally, primary life support and other functions are based out of the Russian Zvezda module.

        • by mysidia ( 191772 )

          Additionally, primary life support and other functions are based out of the Russian Zvezda module.

          Life support and system functions are important, BUT this is fundamentally different from flight support functions,
          so maybe they don't have personnel ready with the Specific training to flight command systems and monitoring requirements.

          Otherwise, why wouldn't they have just handed control to the backup station and sent the affected personnel home?

    • I thought Moscow was already setup to handle the ISS in case something happened to Houston. The Russians ran Mir for over a decade I'm sure they can handle the ISS for a few days.

      Our current administration would never work that closely with the Russians.

    • AIUI...

      I thought Moscow was already setup to handle the ISS in case something happened to Houston.

      I don't believe MCC-M (Mission Control Center - Moscow) can handle any but the most basic functions of the USOS (United States Operating Segment). I know that MCC-M doesn't have full 24/7 comms with the ISS as it relies on Russian communications networks. Lastly, MCC-M isn't staffed to fully support the USOS, all the experts are at MCC-H (Mission Control Center - Houston).

      They were probably ready to do so if

    • The Russians ran Mir for over a decade I'm sure they can handle the ISS for a few days.

      Well, so far they're not doing such a great job of running the US government. ;-)

    • I'm sure they can handle basic ISS operations, and fancy stuff like spacewalks for planned maintenance can be deferred for the occasional (once per 10 years or so) major storm event.

      However, for the occasional, hard to predict, shit just hit the fan in the station event, it's nice to have the A-Team available on standby to direct the cleanup.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @12:49PM (#55117641)

    Orbital mechanics is what keeps the ISS orbiting, not any control center on earth. And incidentally, it does not "fly", it "orbits". Fundamentally different.

    • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Thursday August 31, 2017 @01:18PM (#55117815)
      The station's orbit needs to be boosted from time to time to compensate for slowdown due to friction with the (extremely) thin atmosphere at its orbital altitude. It's also occasionally steered to keep a safe distance between the station and the larger pieces of orbiting space debris. So yes, NASA does in fact "fly" the ISS.
      • by Strider- ( 39683 )

        Actually, that portion of the job is, I believe, primarily done by the Russians. The primary propulsion on the ISS comes from visiting Progress supply ships, which are Russian. Every progress mission boosts the ISS orbit. Zvezda also has its own set of engines, but I believe those have only been used once since it docked with Zarya. Prior to the retirement of the Shuttle, it was also used to boost the orbit.

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        Not every day or even every week. An occasional orbital correction is not "flying". Flying implies movement control at all times.

  • If it can be flown from the ground, why can't it be flown from the station itself, especially by computersystems.. even if the station is old, it would be no biggy to update the system so it can be automatically flown..
    • It's just a big drone really. Hey, do they have a permit for it?

      • I think the ISS is exempt from drone permitting requirements, something about being insignificantly small (pieces) when it hits the ground.

  • A pedantic, but nevertheless necessary, point: the ISS does not fly. It is in orbit around Earth - an altogether different thing.
  • Look, I know the ISS is this shitty barely-in-orbit station, but it IS still marginally in orbit, no?

    It's not like mission control literally has to literally fly the thing every moment, surely?

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