Yesterday's console ops

Written by Bob McCormick on 9/19/2006 07:38:00 PM

Late last week, I agreed to substitute for the Ops Planner scheduled for mission support this week. I was only needed for Monday (yesterday), during what is called the "Orbit 2" shift (which is 7AM to 4 PM - basically, regular day hours). Since the Shuttle had just undocked from the ISS the day before, the ISS crew was slated for some off-duty time, so I figured the day would be relatively quiet.

Wrong again!

When I came into Mission Control, I went to the MPSR (Multipurpose Support Room). It's an area with other Flight Controllers that provide support to the Front Room Flight Controllers that most people see on NASA TV. I normally leave my headset there - when I pick it up and drop it off at the beginning and end of my shift, it gives me some time to talk face to face with some of the Flight Controllers helping me during my shift.

As I was picking up my headset, I turned on one of the TV monitors, and it showed Astronauts John Phillips and Shannon Lucid at the CAPCOM console, intently looking at their monitors. Since the TV volume wasn't on, and the Flight Controllers were listening to conversations through their headsets (and not through speakers, which would have been unusual anyway), I didn't really know what was going on. Then, one of the Shuttle Flight Controllers said "Yes, that would be a reason to declare emergency". I didn't piece together what he meant, since I couldn't hear the loop conversations. Then, I spoke with one of the Station Flight Controllers from the previous shift, who said, "Bob, you'll have a really interesting shift here. The crew's reporting smoke in the cabin and we've declared a spacecraft emergency!" I rolled my eyes and headed down to the Front Room to see what was going on.

I started taking my handover from the previous Ops Planner, and as I was doing so, someone in the room said "You're on CNN now". Good thing my tie was straight! It turned out that the crew had problems starting the Russian Elektron Oxygen Generator (it has had problems before), and this caused a smoke-like smell in the Russian portion of the ISS. The crew had turned the Elektron off, retreated towards the Soyuz, gone on surgical masks, and were taking cabin readings to determine the chemical makeup of the cabin air.

In times like these, it's best to remember what your job is and how it fits into the entire operation. I am an Operations Planner. I am responsible for developing and maintaining the overall execution plan for the ISS. My job is not to necessarily respond to every systems emergency - there were plenty of other console positions doing that job. Therefore, my job was to possibly consider the plan changes - while at the same time, help finalize the nominal plans. I had to assume that the crew and FCT would and would not be able to recover from the emergency. However, I had very little to do with recovering from the emergency, so I interpreted my job with staying out of the way until the right members of the FCT and the crew could do that job.

In the end, the crew and FCT did the usual superb job. We were fortunate that the crew was not scheduled for a full duty day. The crew found a spill, which they wiped up and stored. The Engineering teams, both in Moscow and in Houston, will continue to research why the Elektron failed and will develop a plan to restore it. This will be necessary, to continue to support the nubmer of crew on the ISS.

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