We spoke to Holly Ridings, flight director in charge of NASA’s mission control, about the day-today operations of the ISS and working with private space companies around the world.
What is the role of a flight director?
There are several flight directors and we all have different roles. We start with the one that we call realtime operations, where you sit in the mission control centre and you fly the spacecraft. There are kind of three legs of structure. There’s the spacecraft itself, the ISS in our scenario, then the crew on board, and then the team on the ground who take care of a lot of the day-to-day work monitoring of all the systems, making sure everything is safe and healthy for the crew on board. For the team on the ground that we call the flight control team, the person responsible and in charge of that team is the flight director. You have that leadership, the technical leadership of that team, and the team varies in size depending on what you’re doing. You have a person in charge of the power system, the communications system, the robotic system, and so that group of people makes up the flight control team, and the flight director is responsible for leading them. It’s a very big job!
What are some of the things you have to do?
Most of the time, day-to-day, the crew has activities that they do on board the space station and so we’re helping the crew with those activities. They might be checking Robonaut, capturing the Dragon spacecraft, and so on, so we work with them and enable them to do that and we also monitor all of the systems on board. If stuff goes wrong, your team springs into action to keep people safe and secure. For the ISS it’s a little complicated because you have these teams on the ground all over the world, so there’s Japan, Europe and Russia. And each of those teams also has a flight director, and then there’s a flight director hierarchy. So the flight director at NASA in Houston is sort of the ultimate authority for the safety of the crew and the spacecraft.
If you want to make a major decision, do you have to run it past every team?
You have the authority to do it without running it by them, but on a day-to-day basis we try to stay ahead of the plan. We start planning with the other agencies months in advance for what the crew is going to do and we refine that plan several weeks in advance. Typically you’re doing it as a partnership where everybody participates in the decision making, but you always have a plan for that really bad day when somebody just has to make a decision.
Have you had any major problems?
[Laughs] Yes! If you do it long enough, I mean thousands and thousands of hours in mission control, you end up seeing problems. One of the problems that sort of makes sense to people on the ground is power problems. On the ISS you have solar arrays that generate the power, and that power is used by each agency’s labs. Power from the solar arrays goes to help each of those areas function and so one of the issues I’ve seen is you have a problem where half the power to the ISS goes away. The boxes that run the power system are actually outside the station, exposed to space. So they see extreme heat, extreme cold and solar flares, and at times they have a power cycle. It’s like a big bad storm where the lights go out in your house, and you have to go reset the breaker. So the lights go out in half the space station and you’re obviously impacting the labs and the functions that each of the different partners use. You go through a troubleshooting process and you basically decide what gets turned off and what gets turned on. So power is a problem I’ve seen.
Is it difficult to resolve a problem like that with so many different partners involved?
To be honest it usually works out really well.
When you have a lot of time people like to negotiate, but when there’s a crisis people really understand that, and everybody focuses, so actually it sounds really difficult but in some ways it is easier because you have that focus where you are trying to solve problems.
Are you in contact with the astronauts on board the ISS all of the time?
We have four communications channels, and in our lingo they’re called space to ground. So if you’ve ever watched NASA TV you would hear the person who sits next to the flight director, their call sign is CAPCOM [capsule communicator], from the old days of capsules or maybe the new days again. So the CAPCOM can call the crew on these channels. The astronauts can always call us, and we can always call them. Along with that we have regularly scheduled meetings where you can talk a little more freely about how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how was the week. Almost like a debrief, because those four channels I mentioned are for day-to-day work. So the astronauts call down saying, ‘hey, I can’t find this tool’, or ‘this procedure doesn’t make sense’, stuff like that.
Do they have their own phone on board to make calls as well?
Yes, they actually have an IP phone, which works through a computer. It’s kind of like space Skype. They can call any phone in the world if they have the right satellite coverage. That helps them stay in contact with their families and friends as well as the people they work with. And then they have these regularly scheduled meetings with their families where they can get video as well. So there’s lots of different ways that we communicate with them.
Do they need permission to call whoever they want on Earth?
[Laughs] Nope! They’re allowed to call out whenever they want. That’s one of the great things about the ISS, that they do have freedom to live a normal life even though they’re flying on a space station. When you’re assigned as a flight director to the crew that’s living on the ISS they’ll call you all the time! So you’re carrying your phone around and it’ll ring and it’ll be the space station. It’s really actually kind of cool, it never gets old. I mean I’ve been doing this for 15 years and it’s still really cool to have the space station call you.
How many flight directors are there?
There are usually about 25 active flight directors.
That sounds like a lot but we have three that work in mission control every day on rotating shifts. For example, after this interview I’m going to mission control to work a shift. There are three flight directors dedicated every single day to running the ISS in realtime. Then there’s another flight director dedicated to the overall management, they’re figuring out what the crew is going to do every day. And then you’ve got the other programmes, those in the commercial industry and all the other agencies who have vehicles. We fly to the station roughly a vehicle a month, if not more, so it’s really busy on the station.
Is it much busier in mission control when a vehicle is coming to dock with the station?
Yes, it is. In late April we had a Progress vehicle that the Russians build and fly, so we had to put the solar arrays on the ISS in the right position, get our communication system sorted, the crew is involved as an international unit and so on, so it’s busy for everybody no matter where the vehicle comes from. You usually have a dedicated flight director who goes in and does activities for docking and undocking, grappling and ungrappling, and then you have speciality people who do these dynamic events.
Do private companies have their own flight directors as well?
Yes, they do. So one of the things that I did recently is, I was the NASA flight director responsible for the very first Dragon to come to the space station [in May 2012] and so I spent like three years working with SpaceX and their team of folks to make the whole operation work, and I still work with them. They do have flight directors, as do other companies like Orbital Sciences, and they actually call them mission directors, that’s the term they use. And then SpaceX and Orbital have a flight control team, just like our international partners. We try to work as a team and plan things ahead of time, but ultimately when they get close to the station we call the scenario, and we have the ultimate authority over what happens.
When that first Dragon docked with the ISS, were you guys at NASA as jubilant as those at SpaceX?
It’s funny, SpaceX was here last week and we were reminiscing about that. SpaceX’s reaction was very similar to the Japanese when they did their first HTV, jubilation and excitement, you know jumping up and down, that kind of stuff. So we are obviously always excited, but when you’ve been through it so many times, you know that when you’ve grappled and you just did this amazing thing there is still work to do. So we do show a little less emotion because we know there are still things to do. And if you look at the SpaceX control room now they’ve flown three times, they’re much calmer now too because they know after grappling there is more work to do. We’re not any less excited but we do show it less.
So, we spoke to ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers last month, who grappled the first Dragon to the station. Could you tell us how you worked together on that mission?
Ah, I know Andre very well! So, on approach to the station, we have the final say but it is very much apartnership with the crew. They have the capability to make independent decisions based on what they perceive as the performance of the vehicle and the safety of the vehicle. It’s a little bit of shared authority. We do that on purpose as the astronauts are on the space station, and obviously colliding a vehicle with the space station is one of the worst things that can happen to the crew. They have the best seat in the house, so they can see how the vehicle is acting and what’s going on. Those guys, Andre and Don Pettit, did an awesome job for that docking.
What upcoming missions are you most excited about?
In June we’re going to fly the next European ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], and then later in the summer our Japanese friends will fly to the space station again with their HTV. These vehicles have come before but they don’t come very often, maybe once a year, so when they come to visit it’s always exciting. And then we’ve got another commercial company coming. So SpaceX was the first, as a supply partner to the station, and the second company under contract is Orbital Sciences Corporation and their vehicle is the Cygnus. And this will be the very first mission that they fly to the space station. When something flies to the ISS for the first time it’s always very exciting. You learn things, and more vehicles is great for all of the industry and the different countries, and it fosters a lot of competition. So that one I’m really excited about.
What about further into the future?
A little bit further on the horizon, 2014, we’ve got our [Orion] exploration programme that some of the flight directors are involved in. We’re going to fly the first of that exploration programme and its name is EFT-1, a very exciting name [laughs]… So that’s the first of the exploration programme that NASA is working on and it should be out in 2014. So that will be really exciting because it’s another new vehicle. The new vehicles are the best, you always get excited about them and learn stuff, and you wouldn’t do this job if you didn’t like to learn stuff every day.
Will there be flight directors for the Orion programme in the same manner as for the ISS?
For this first mission it’s short, only a couple of orbits around the Earth for about five hours, so we’ll just have one person assigned to do that. Eventually though, that’s the goal. One of the great things about being a NASA flight director is you get to work on multiple programmes. As we get further along in exploration we’ll all have opportunities to train and learn new programmes and vehicles. So back in history we had the Space Shuttle, and it’ll be kind of the same when we have exploration up and running. We’ll have our own exploration and all the commercial stuff, so we’ll move around different programmes, which is great. You never get bored, every day is different, and it’s always interesting.
What are your personal highlights from your time as a flight director?
In recent times, that first Dragon berthing with the stage was a personal highlight. To spend multiple years with a new team of people and a new company [SpaceX] and a new spacecraft and then figure out how to make that merge with our space station, and then take that vehicle all the way there and have it work that first try that was definitely a highlight. Any time you can have the opportunity to develop something new for the first time, I mean it’s sort of the best job you could ever ask for. So that one was amazing. I was also the lead flight director for STS-127 a couple of years ago, and that Shuttle mission was really amazing because we took up Japanese hardware, sort of similar to working with the SpaceX folks, because in that scenario I got to build up a relationship with the Japanese team. So in recent history those are my two favourite highlights.
Do you think there will be more international collaborations like the ISS in future?
I hope so. There has been some talk with different international partners about using their capabilities, their spacecraft and some of the pieces of their spacecraft to help with our exploration plans. I know NASA in general is interested in partnering with the international community to work with the exploration programme. And certainly on the US side, in terms of US and commercial work, there’s going to be a lot of partnership with the government and the commercial industry. I think the space station is amazing and it’s one of the few things in the world where everybody’s goal is common and you have priorities that are common, to fly in space and keep your crew safe. And you can do all of these amazing scientific and technical activities, so I think that sort of collaboration will continue as we go forward.