When I think of NASA Ames, I think of a center that does a lot of the initial work on projects. I always thought Ames was the place where the engineers ran the numbers and tested if spacecraft could transition through the atmosphere safely. Direct flight operations always seemed to happen elsewhere. It turns out that’s not entirely true as I happened to visit Ames’s very own Multi-Mission Operations Center (MMOC) last week.
The group I hung out with was providing technical support for Astronaut Don Pettit who was installing an expansion port for the SPHERES robots. The challenging part was that the engineers are not allowed to talk to the Astronaut directly. There’s a lag in communication and the sound quality is not too great, so it would be very easy to confuse and frustrate the man in space. All engineers had to talk through PAYCOM in Huntsville, who would then repeat in one voice to Don. One funny thing to note, all the NASA positions, except Astronauts, are referred to by an acronym or location. So on the voice loops, we have Hunstville, Ames, PAYCOM, POD, and then simply ‘Don’ talking.
My tour ended up being 6 hours of watching an Astronaut remove 12 screws in space. That sounds a bit gloomy, but there’s a reason for all of the delays. He needed a soldering iron to heat the screws and release the Loctite. This caused venting concerns which meant that Don had to spend time setting up a plastic enclosed workspace. Don also had to use specific numbers from MIT for his torque wrench to avoid stripping the screw’s standoffs. It’s pretty costly to send replacement parts back on to the ISS. Then in the middle of the job, Don had to fly off to watch Progress docking with fresh supplies. There’s also the problem where we don’t have continuous video or voice connections with the ISS. Every so often the engineers would have to deal with a 3 minute black out. These are not all the details of the problems that happened that day, but hopefully you can see how what would be a 30-minute job in your garage can become a massive pain to replicate on the ISS.
During the downtimes, it was fun to just talk to the people on comms. I also found out that Ames has their very own clean room where they’re assembling LADEE. At the very least, the whole trip was worth the small glimpse into the stress that can be flight operations. It also showed me how Astronauts are micromanaged in space. Realize that those people live in a world where at least 6 other people are monitoring them remotely at all times. I freak out just when my boss walks by.