NASA’s Mission Control Center has a long and prideful history. Speak with people who work on console and you’ll find passionate professionals and mottos that radiate enthusiasm for the responsibility that comes along with supporting human spaceflight. Hundreds of individuals are always working around the clock to support the few elite individuals lucky and skilled enough to be able to venture outside of our world. I highly recommend reading the NASA and personal blogs of Flight Direct Wayne Hale if you want to get a feel for what dedication to the industry truly means, and what it is to acknowledge that the lives of others relies on the quality of your work.
Current Mission Control is essential for flying the International Space Station and is the crew’s main connection to Earth. Astronauts rely on ground for medical advice, operational support, and communication with family. While movies often show the front room of Mission Control complete with the stern but level-headed flight director, the truth is that each system has many more people in back rooms working to monitor telemetry and solve any issues as they arise.
In the end, it takes thousands to fly a few.
It’s important to note that working relationships between Mission Support and a crew aren’t always perfect.
Disagreements at work? You don’t say.
One commonly used example is that of the Skylab mission in which a crew turned off communications and forced a day off. In space, the boss doesn’t have the luxury of storming into your office, but this is ultimately a loss for everyone involved. These negative outcomes are part of the reason why analog missions like ours exist – to better understand psychological impacts of different factors on crew behavior.
Mission Support at HI-SEAS
At HI-SEAS, we too rely on Mission Support. Our particular simulation considers interactions between ground and crew in a planetary context rather than one in which astronauts are orbiting Earth, such as in the ISS. As technology has improved, ISS astronauts are able to video chat with their families, communicate with medical professionals, and speak directly to ground personnel instantaneously during EVA (Extravehicular activity). Although they are not quite on the planet, but they are still close to home.
Mars would have different restrictions. Due to the large distance between Earth and Mars, communications take about 20 minutes to travel in each direction. That means that the following conversation:
“Good morning, Crew”
“No, good Sir. Good morning to you, Ground”
would take 40 minutes to complete. It should be obvious that ground-crew interactions and the way conversations occur will need to be very different on Mars than it is currently.
Performing work through mission support can at times be wonderful, and a challenge at others.
As a group of engineers and scientists who are used to solving problems on their own, the inability to access information quickly took time to adjust to. If something breaks, there is no Google. If no manual or datasheet is present here, we need to request it from mission support. That means if you need a piece of information to solve your problem, your problem won’t be fixed for at least 40 minutes, likely longer. If Mission Support misunderstands the question and provides the wrong information, or if the crew misstates the request, then this time is doubled. This is all alright if your problem is minor, but if a crucial system fails, this can be a major issue and mean real danger on an actual mission. This is partly why Mars astronauts will need to be self-sufficient, extremely capable, and have a full understanding of their habitat systems.
Luckily our Mission Support Team includes many highly capable and caring individuals. They’re often able to acquire the tools and information necessary to solve technical issues in addition to things like news and entertainment as quickly as we need it.
Requiring asking for everything you need can certainly make you feel more dependent, but there can at times be a fun and useful component to having a supportive team on your side. Having people ready and willing to gather information for you can be extremely helpful and time-efficient. If you plan correctly, the delay is more than made up for by the research time that someone kindly put in for you and that you didn’t have to do. It’s basically like having a bunch of humorous people who are half-assistants and half-parents, helping you along the way while occasionally denying requests.
Pizza delivery is not allowed, Mission Support? What kind of spaceport is this?!
Of course, it’s also important to quell the temptation to make requests such as:
“I need exact dimensions of every type of animal cracker – STAT!”
This is because least one person on the team will find a way to create a comprehensive animal cracker dimensions excel sheet with the headings: Giraffe – Lion – Monkey….
These are professionals here.
The interesting part of working with Mission Support is acknowledging that they’re just as much of a part of the team as your crewmembers, and getting to know each one can be quite fun. Space people are often inherently interesting (and odd) due to an insatiable curiosity and wonder of the world.
Just like with fellow crewmembers, disagreements will arise with your mission support teams. Perspectives will differ, and conversations will need to happen. You’ll learn to grow and work with them more efficiently as personalities are learned and trust is fostered between ground and crew. Ultimately, you’ll get a lot done and hopefully have a laugh or two along the way.
Future Mission Control Centers and the way they interact with crewmembers will be quite different than the way it’s done now. Crew composition and necessary skill sets will likely differ as well due to the restraints of time delays and the inability to quickly return home. However, one thing will still ring true, even on HI-SEAS:
It takes many to support a few.