Imagine trying to walk someone through the steps of changing the brakes on their car — over the phone. Now, imagine they’re in outer space.
For Pam Martin and her colleagues at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, this is just another day at the office, only instead of helping someone fix a simple part on a car, she’s helping astronauts repair and maintain delicate systems
on the International Space Station (ISS), which is orbiting more than 200 miles above Earth and traveling at a whopping 17,500 miles per hour.
“A car is a very complex system, and we’re talking about a massive space station so it’s even more difficult,” Martin says. “And you can’t really talk on the phone all the time because you have communication gaps. If you’re lucky, you might have a video camera that gives you some pictures every now and then.”
Operations Support Officer Flight Controllers (OSOs) are in charge of training space station crews on daily maintenance procedures like changing out filters and making sure the toilet is functioning properly, as well as in specialized procedures for installing and activating new modules of the Station. OSOs are on console at ISS Mission Control, providing technical support, and are on call for emergencies onboard the ISS. On the Space Shuttle side of Mission Control are In-Flight Maintenance Flight Directors (IFMs), who provide similar training and support to the shuttle crews.
The OSO and IFM teams have their roots in the Apollo program, specifically Apollo 13, when flight controllers had to quickly come up with solutions for modifying carbon dioxide scrubbers in the Lunar Module when the Service Module was damaged by an oxygen tank explosion and crew members had to abandon the Command Module to take refuge in the Lunar Module. Using only materials the astronauts were known to have on hand, flight controllers fashioned a modified scrubber and then radioed the build instructions up to the crew. Materials included a sock and duct tape.
In 2007, Martin and the other OSO flight controllers had to come up with a solution to repair a torn solar array on the ISS and devised, in just a few days, a fix that would normally have taken months of planning and procedure writing. Using wire known to be in storage onboard the ISS, they devised a set of “cufflinks” to mend the tear in the solar array. Martin says the experience was intense but rewarding.
“It’s like Apollo 13,” she says. “We sit down and say, ‘OK, this didn’t work. It wasn’t designed right — so what do we have onboard that we can fix it with?’ It’s so much fun.”
The massive Building 9 at Johnson Space Center houses full-sized mock-ups of the individual ISS modules, and serves as a place not only for training but also troubleshooting during missions.
“We’ll be in the middle of a shuttle mission and something doesn’t work, so you’ll have four OSOs sitting over there at 3 a.m. trying to figure out what to do,” Martin explains.
She says flight controllers are great at the art of prioritizing properly, and asking the right questions to best determine how and when a problem onboard the ISS can be fixed.
“Things go wrong all the time — it’s just a matter of the business,” she says. “But during critical timelines, like during a shuttle mission, where you have to do things by a certain time or it can affect the next EVA [extravehicular activity], it’s all about criticality, knowing how long we have to figure out a solution and what course of action we can take. Sometimes the answer is that we have to fly a new piece of hardware up on the next shuttle mission.”
OSOs don’t just address emergencies, though. They also research and write intricate procedures for operations such as installing new modules, and then train the astronauts on how to carry out those incredibly detailed lists of instructions. Every time a new module is launched to the ISS, the OSOs are involved in developing all the outfitting procedures to attach it and get it up and running.
Martin headed up the procedure development for the installation of the Cupola module, the “bay window on the Earth” that was launched on STS-130 in February 2010.
“I worked for months on that module,” she says. “And to see those window shutters finally open was really amazing.”
Martin began with a list of tasks necessary to get the Cupola up and running and the software working, but she had to determine the proper order in which those steps had to occur and then train the crew on exactly how to carry them out while on orbit. It’s a high-stakes DIY tutorial.
“Imagine someone giving you a list of what has to be done to fix a car, and you’re sitting there with this list trying to do it,” she says. “That shows you how important the procedures have to be. They have to have good pictures, clear instructions.”