Embedded at NASA (Part 2)

By Keith Cowing
April 2, 2003
Filed under ,

Part 1 | 2

If it ain’t broke

There were some things peculiar to NASA’s way of doing things that a number of us picked up on. One has to do with the cue cards that contain the procedures crews follow during various aspects of their mission. While there is an attempt to minimize the amount of paper aboard Shuttles and especially on the ISS (in favor of electronic media) there is still a clear preference for having things on paper.


The card approach has been around through out the Shuttle program – and in earlier form since the dawn of human spaceflight. Part check list, part crib sheet, the procedures are written in pure NASAese and are printed on semi-rigid paper with Velcro tabs. The Velcro (the standard issue pale blue variety) allows pages to be held in place regardless of whether you are floating in microgravity or (as I discovered) sitting on your back on the pad.

A number of reporters asked why there had not been a move to an electronic version – along the lines of the PDAs or tablet computers such that pages could be changed – and revised automatically. Our morning briefer really had no answer other than to say that there was always some talk about how to do this better.

The point seems to be that this approach has worked just fine for years. Besides, how many of us don’t have little pieces of paper stuck to the side of our computer? Why should astronauts be any different? As one reporter said, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Old Dog – New Tricks

There are a lot of things about the Shuttle that are not state of the art in terms of technology. Whereas some (such as the “glass cockpits”) are. In the aftermath of Columbia’s demise, with everything on the table, I am sure every quirk in the way NASA does things will get a critical once-over. To be sure, there are things that could use an upgrade – but the upgrades are called for regardless of whether there was a fatal Shuttle accident.

If you haven’t worked around the NASA system this can strike you as being odd, inefficient, etc. It really is not. Nor is it unique to NASA. Air Force pilots in their 20’s are now flying B-52’s over Iraq that were built before their parents were born and contain an overlapping spectrum of hardware ranging in age from the dawn of rock ‘n roll to last month. Much the same can be said for the Shuttle.

Simulator’s Glass Cockpit

One example can be found in the Shuttles controls and the way that mission simulations are run. While the Shuttle’s new “glass cockpits” use instrumentation derived from production line commercial jetliners, much of what is shown on the displays looks exactly like the 70’s era green cathode ray tube (CRT) displays that were originally on the Shuttle – complete with graphics that would make PacMan look like artwork by comparison. Despite their apparent antiquity, these displays provide the information that is required in a simple format that people (astronauts) have grown used to using.

As such, even though you could have flashy high resolution color graphics on the screen, you have simple, proven information displays instead. Yet the display hardware is lighter and much more power efficient thus freeing up capacity for the Shuttle’s payloads. This “backwards compatibility” allows crew training to be valid between shuttles with new glass cockpits and those with older systems. It also allows astronauts with a decade or more of training to be able to build upon established skills instead of having to go get a whole new batch.

Sitting in the room where mission simulations are coordinated for astronauts inside Shuttle simulators, you also see a lot of the same ancient displays that the Shuttle crews see in the cockpit (again) even though the monitors are much more capable.

Displays During Simulation

There is a greater range of computer eras represented here. In addition to the green-on-black CRT 70’s era displays, there are screen displays that look like they were generated by dBase, Lotus 123, or some other ancient DOS software from the early 1980s. Much of the displays reflect software that, although improved upon over time, still has its roots in the technology that was around when the Shuttle first flew.

Again, all of this is still in use because it works – and because it was developed to use with a system of similar heritage. To be certain, you could spruce it all up by using new plasma displays, dramatic back lighting, and so forth such that everything looks like it belongs on Star Trek, but these embellishments would simply be window dressing – even distractions – on a system that has a proven track record.

Curiously, in a time when glitz pervades nearly all aspects of high-end computing, PDAs, cell phones, and text pagers, with their decidedly unglamorous screens – some positively 80’s in their look and feel – are now all the rage. Go figure.

Changes on the way

No doubt the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) will make recommendations regarding the ability to obtain and monitor performance of Shuttle orbiters and the ability for crews to receive, interpret, and act upon this information in real time. There was already work underway into the advanced health and monitoring system for the Shuttle upgrade program which is now being refocused under a new name SLEP – Service Life Extension Program. One would expect this to be accelerated.

Regardless of what added capabilities are provided, it is unlikely that these core or “heritage” systems used in the Shuttle program are going to be replaced anytime soon. Perhaps, as NASA looks toward its professed goal of flying Shuttles until 2020 this will be re-examined.

To be certain, whatever form the Shuttle’s successor, the Orbital Space Plane, takes, a wholly new way of monitoring vehicle performance will probanly be provided. The way that the crew monitors the vehicle will, no doubt, also reflect current technological capabilities. But I will be willing to bet that there will be a discernible heritage in the look and feel of this system that one could trace directly back to the Shuttle program.

Another instance of “overlapping technology” has to do with the computers and video equipment used on the Shuttle. Even before the glass cockpit and avionics upgrades being performed on the shuttle fleet, newer computational capabilities were being brought aboard. The earliest example was the use of TI-59 calculators to help with routine calculation tasks.

As soon as “portable” computers came into existence (GRiD computers running CP/M) they found their way onto Space Shuttle missions. Today the crews use almost-off the shelf computers. One of the things the crews do once they get on orbit is to pull out the laptops, printers, routers, and cables and hook everything up. Other than making sure the connectors are not going to fail, the cables are pretty standard fare: Ethernet, USB, firewire, etc.

NASA has also been using consumer grade video gear. We were able to see the small cameras that are used to show the crew during launch as well as what was used to record reentry (as was the case with Columbia). Everything is recorded on a DVD recorder you can buy. Those recordings are then sent down using other commercial grade gear via the Shuttle’s S-band communication link. These items are velcroed against the cabin walls of a 30 year old spacecraft designed right next to avionics. Not much different than using my Mac G4 laptop, cell phone, 4 mega pixel digital camera, and iPod music player in the 1978 VW camper my wife and I own.

I have seen this sort of technological overlap can be found in an article (Going Off Source: Time Away with SETI) I wrote about a visit to a SETI search at Greenbank Observatory in West Virginia wherein cutting edge signal detection computer hardware designed to find evidence of a civilizations light years away coexists with copper-filled monsters from the Cold War.

Becoming “Embedded”

While we were being driven from one part of JSC to another the cell phones began to ring. Several of the folks on our team worked for a large TV network and got a call telling them that the attack on Iraq was apparently underway – and here we were, a bunch of partially “embedded” reporters at NASA. 19 March 2003 – Gulf War II.

That word, ’embedded’ has been all the rage these past two weeks of war. While the concept of having reporters close to the action is not new, the sophistication and ubiquity of satellite and Internet communications has allowed reporters to provide a personalized view of what is going on with unprecedented speed.

Given the nature of warfare, the reporters which have been formally embedded within active units do so with the understanding that they will adhere to a variety of rules – most of which are justifiably designed to keep the enemy from gaining strategic advantage from what is reported. In exchange, the reporters get access to places, things, and events in a way that is often breathtaking.

The system is not without its risk or its failings. Already, several embedded reporters have been injured. Several others have broken their agreement and have been asked to leave Iraq as a result. But, by far, the system has worked very well and these events are exceptions.

As I mentioned before, during our one day visit to JSC we had a very light public affairs presence. Nothing was ruled to be out of bounds for reporting. What we asked – and how NASA folks responded – was left to our mutual self-discipline and judgment. Given that the day was, by definition, very ‘hands-on’ we were all rather preoccupied with what we were being exposed to with little time for Q & A. None the less, there were opportunities, as mentioned above, to interact with folks.

No one from NASA seemed ill at ease with a dozen reporters traipsing around – some representing giant TV networks, others representing newspapers with global reach, and several whose only medium is the Internet. Conversely, none of the reporters seemed at all awe struck or distracted by the fact that we had a Shuttle crew more or less at our disposal to answer any question we deemed worth asking.

Columbia On Their Minds

Everyone I spoke with seemed genuinely interested in telling me and the other reporters what they do – even if they had to drop the technical content down a bit in so doing. Given that we were visiting barely 6 weeks after the loss of Columbia everyone seemed to be holding up rather well and were looking ahead, to a person, to returning to flight (safely) as soon as possible.

Columbia was clearly on everyone’s mind. As such, I also sensed a common interest among all I met to provide a deeper context against which we could understand the various data points that were emerging about the Columbia accident. Hopefully we would all, in exchange, have a better understanding as we conveyed news to our viewers and readers.

Daily discoveries of debris, data, photos, internal email – all are being hurled forth into the public arena in an unprecedented fashion. Anyone who chooses to try and come up with a theory can now do so armed with all kinds of data. Given that we are all awash in instantaneous information sources, there is no way that NASA could have been anything but utterly open with all of this information.

Unfortunately, despite this deluge of data, much about what may have happened is still only known to investigators. Much more is still sitting on the ground in the form of debris scattered across the Western U.S. Even those who have the big picture don’t have a clear one.

All the more reason for all involved to try and tell as story against the context from whence it emerged – and not just on the face value of bits and pieces that float by.

Lessons Learned

There is a lesson for NASA to be learned here. While no date has yet been floated for a return to flight, it is probable that a hiatus on the order of a year or so is not unreasonable to expect. When it does happen, Interest in this flight will be greater, I think, than the last return to flight (post-Challenger), John Glenn’s mission, or any other Shuttle mission for that matter.

As such, there will be one special payload on this one mission: the future of American human spaceflight – perhaps even NASA’s future as well. If NASA can show itself as being capable not only of the technical smarts needed to overcome the technical issues, but also the programmatic and political choices that must also be made, then there is no reason not to expect that it can move ahead on the path it has set for itself. If NASA cannot rise to these challenges and instead finds itself mired in a repeat of the post-Challenger accident malaise and self-doubt, I fear that the future will be dark indeed.

Part of this recovery process must involve, once and for all, an honest attempt to portray the process of spaceflight, as practiced at NASA, to the world – warts and all. Boxes of email just won’t cut it when all is said and done. NASA prides itself on making the complicated look routine – and promulgates that image of itself. As such, everyone comes to expect that NASA has all the answers at its finger tips. It doesn’t. Some of those answers have to be earned through a Herculean amount of work – work that no one ever sees – until something like a Shuttle accident brings it all to the surface.

One way to do this is to grab a page from the Department of Defense’s Iraq playbook and “embed” the media in the process of returning to flight. Let them see everything from the mundane to the heart-pounding.

To be sure some of the process of getting Shuttles flying again, such as what we reporters all saw, is fun stuff that is photogenic. Other things, such as Flight Readiness Reviews and the other innumerable meetings that NASA uses to get to the point where a Shuttle can be launched, are not – and they need some interpreting. You won’t get adequate interpretation by simply dropping reporters in the room and expecting them to understand what is going on. Indeed, you couldn’t do that with NASA employees either!

Reporters need to see the process and become familiar with its workings before they can turn to an audience and explain what is going on – and why. Conversely, NASA folks need to be able to better explain what it is they are doing without resorting to jargon laden, engineering grammar that often obscures more than explains these things. Given that internal emails and memos are at the heart of what NASA did or did not know prior to the Columbia accident, obtaining such clarity is more important than ever.

Being There

I had an experience last summer which I hope to repeat again this year: a month on Devon Island as part of the NASA Haughton Mars Project. My company (SpaceRef Interactive) donated a greenhouse for use in life support research. Our task was to ship the thing there and then build it. I went to the island armed with plans, back-up plans, and as much preparation and redundancy as I could think of. While this served me well, many things caught me utterly by surprise.

Cold and wet on Devon Island

Having worked on NASA projects associated with the Space Station and Space Shuttle with co-workers who were steeped in space operations, I thought I understood what it would be like to be “on a mission”. Boy was I wrong.

Only by actually living through the process of being in a remote, hazardous location, surrounded by lots of gear with complicated tasks to perform, gave me a true understanding. No amount of thinking or writing about this back home could have done that. And as I was undergoing this arctic epiphany of sorts, I was reporting on it – embedded in the arctic [Full journal].

The Road Ahead

These lessons should not be limited to the Shuttle program. NASA has a vast collection of projects underway at its field centers, in universities, and out in the field which rarely, if ever, get adequately portrayed to the public. Speaking of embedding … I wonder how the press will cover the first human mission to Mars …

To be certain, placing embedding reporters in everything NASA does could become cumbersome. As such, there will need to be a way to balance press access with real technical work. One thing that is not needed though is more public affairs handlers. It has been my experience that the vast majority of NASA’s family can handle themselves with the press given the opportunity.

The visibility that goes with press access also serves as a nice feedback system: anyone at NASA who goes out and abuses the opportunity to speak with the media – or vice versa – finds their words in front of thousands – sometimes millions of eyes.

You can never ask for a good time for a bad things to happen. But you can take the opportunity offered by fate to make things better. When a Space Shuttle once again leaps into space, its return to space will be watched by more eyes than have watched any other Shuttle launch. Such visibility provides a unique opportunity – one I hope NASA does not squander since I doubt it will ever get another quite like this.

There are many things that could come from the sacrifice made by the crew of Columbia. Perhaps an enhanced public awareness and appreciation of what actually goes into space exploration may be one outcome. It won’t be the only legacy Columbia leaves us, but it would be a nice start.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.