Status Report

Wayne Hale’s NASA Blog: Getting Myself Fired

By SpaceRef Editor
May 29, 2009
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Wayne Hale’s NASA Blog: Getting Myself Fired

In 1985 I was a Propulsion Systems Officer in the Space Shuttle Mission Control team. I was responsible for the reaction control system that was absolutely vital to orient the space shuttle outside the atmosphere, and for the orbital maneuvering system which provides the final push to get the orbiter into orbit and the deorbit burn to come home. These liquid rocket systems are a mechanical engineer’s delight: lots of plumbing, valves, some smoke and fire, knowledge of orbital mechanics required, thermal control, crew interaction, and software. We had a great team and I was proud to be part of most of the early shuttle missions. But it was time to make a move to supervisor, and in the spring of the year I was selected to be the leader of the INCO group.

INCO stands for Integrated Communications — that’s just about what you think: radios, recorders, instrumentation, television. That discipline is an Electrical Engineer’s delight. Not mine. I took exactly one EE course in college and nearly flunked it. But the big bosses said it was OK, I would be a supervisor who knew all the processes and procedures for Mission Control. I didn’t need to understand the technical stuff, they told me, that was what the staff was for.

That was a lie.

Very quickly I found out that understanding the basics of radios and digital electronics was absolutely mandatory for supervising the INCO team.

Oh, and the INCOs were responsible for the coffee pots for the MCC — but that story will have to wait for another post.

I decided that I would have to go through the process to be certified as an INCO if I were to lead this group. This is not easy! The INCO team is made up of the shift leader in the FCR (who you see on TV) – he is the guy who owns the title “INCO” and responds directly to the Flight Director; then in the “back room” are the support staff: RF COMM, and INST. The entry level position was INST. The Instrumentation Officer is responsible for the onboard telemetry, the signal conditioners, the engineering recorders, etc.

I understood nothing about any of this stuff. But the INCO folks recognized that they would have to teach me their job if I were going to be an adequate leader, so they all pitched in. I read the books, went to the lectures, observed the operations in the MCC, did all my homework. Then I was ready to start working in the MCC for the integrated simulations. With the astronaut crew in the space shuttle simulator in building 5, and an entire Mission Control team in building 30, these sessions were intense. The Simulation Supervisor and his training team were diabolically clever in developing training lessons where interlocking malfunctions could appear insurmountable – but which a good crew and MCC team could overcome.

On my final day as the supervisor of the INCO section, I participated in an integrated Ascent simulation. We would practice launching the shuttle over and over and over again, with the clock picking up about 2 minutes before liftoff, and as soon as the shuttle cleared the tower malfunction after malfunction appearing in short order. Most of the time the crew survived. Sometimes the shuttle even made it to orbit. But it was intense. And back in the office, all the Flight Control management is listening to the comm loops to hear how well the team is doing.

It was an artifact of the system that when the simulator starts at T-2, not all the communications system is in the right configuration. In real life, the INCO team has many hours to command all the various components to the optimum conditions for launch, but in an integrated Ascent sim, there are two minutes to get everything configured properly onboard. This meant that the INCO, the RF COMM, and the INST were all banging away on their command keyboards furiously to get all the commands sent to the (simulated) shuttle before lift off. In those ancient days (well before PCs and point&click logic), the consoles had the Multifunction Command and Display Keyboard. Basically this was a bunch of pushbuttons which had the hexadecimal alphabet on the keys plus one larger key marked “Command Execute.” You had to know the hexadecimal code for the command you wanted to send; have the dexterity to type it in correctly; confirm on the computer display the code was entered properly; then hit Command Execute for the big mainframe computer on the ground floor of the MCC to send the command. A fraction of a second later the command would be received at the shuttle (real or simulated) and if everything lined up properly Things Would Happen. The Right Thing, you hoped.

So with each run, my job was to start the MADS recorder – capturing the “ancillary” data for post flight analysis. As soon as the simulator went to run at T-2 minutes, I would carefully type in the hexadecimal command for MADS recorder start, verify that code appeared properly on my computer screen, and push the command execute button.

Ascent simulations are not very interesting to the INST operator because Sim Sup generally targets the bigger systems — main engines fail, external tanks leak, fire breaks out in the cockpit, stuff like that. Ascent runs take only about 15 minutes, then you debrief, turn the simulator around, and start again. Many times. After all day, I got pretty good at starting the MADS recorder. Ticky tickety tick, execute. Next run: ticky tickety, tick, execute. And repeat.

On the last run of the day, I punched in the numbers by rote, disregarded the computer screen and hit the execute key. “WHY DID THE FM TRANSMITTER JUST TURN OFF” echoed in my headset. “INST – YOU SENT THE WRONG COMMAND!” Uh oh. Just one little keystroke wrong. I was the goat.

The debrief was not fun.

When I got back to my office, there was a note on my door from the Division Chief: “Come see me”. As I said, that was my last day as an INCO. Back in the PROP section the next morning. Moral of the story: Treat each command as if it were your last. It could be.

SpaceRef staff editor.