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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: The Kaboom Case

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Wednesday, January 7, 2009

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Starting to work in Mission Control at JSC just before the first shuttle flight was a dream come true. I was surrounded by old Apollo flight controllers who filled my days with space stories from the moon landings and before. Those guys had seen a lot of action: Apollo 13, Gemini 8, Skylab 1, and many more near disasters that had turned out all right due to hard work, solid preparation, ingenuity and not a little good luck. And they also lived through "the fire" as it was universally known -- Apollo 1; where all the preparation, ingenuity, and luck did not help. My early days were a continuous seminar in the trials and tribulations of early space history taught by those who had earned their PhD in the school of hard knocks.

But the torch was being passed to a new generation of flight controllers and by the second shuttle flight there were a lot of us "new kids" training for the coveted front room positions in Mission Control. I got to side saddle (that was the term) with the legendary Gary Coen who played a vital role in saving Apollo 13. For shuttle, Gary was the senior Propulsion Officer, responsible for the hypergolic rockets that controlled the orbit and attitude of the shuttle. My buddy Ron Dittemore, with a year's seniority on me, had already achieved orbit certification and was working on the even more difficult Ascent and Entry phase certifications as a front room Prop officer. Following us was the new guy in the Prop section, a fellow that had transferred down from the Lewis Research Center: Bill Gerstenmaier. Seems like we would be working together for a long time to come.

Sitting with Gary during all the simulations and training was really outstanding. He knew the systems, flight rules, and procedures forwards and backwards. Even more importantly, he had the judgment that comes with long experience to know what to do in a crisis. And the simulations are nothing more than one crisis after another coming so fast that they pile up on top of each other.

The down side was that all the old Apollo guys were smoking fiends. In those days nobody had heard of a ban on smoking in the workplace. Gary was a chainsmoker of unfiltered cigarettes, so I got plenty of second hand smoke sitting right next to him. On my other side, the GNC officer was Harry Clancy. Harry was a pipe guy. I'm surprised that I haven't yet died of emphysema; as it was there were some days I thought I might asphyxiate.

But we learned what it meant to be flight controllers from the pioneers.

One basic lessons was known as "loop discipline." Every position had a communications keyset which allowed the flight controller to communicate with different people. The communications circuits were called "loops" and each one had its specific use and name. The Propulsion team, front and back room, talked about our special problems on the "Prop loop." Everybody monitored the "Air to Ground loop" where the crew talked with the CAPCOM on the radio. And everybody _ I mean EVERYBODY - listened to the "Flight Director loop" where all the important topics were discussed and decisions announced. Drilled into your head was the requirement to "talk on the loop" where everyone who had an interest in the topic could hear you -- not only the members of your own discipline but the engineers over in the Mission Evaluation Room, the prelaunch team down at KSC, and your boss over in the office on the other side of the duck ponds at JSC. Everybody who was anybody at NASA from the Administrator on down, had a box in their office to the Flight Director loop. And the loops were recorded for posterity. It was very important to pick your words carefully when talking on the loop. Telling jokes or otherwise fooling around was not allowed. But the worst sin was to "talk over the airwaves", not on the loop, but where only the people physically around you could hear a conversation. We were trained so to talk on the loop even if it was to the guy three feet away next to you. The conversation was to be done "on the loop" so that others could follow it as well. Loop discipline was one of the minor lessons, and there were many more difficult lessons in the school of flight controller training.

After working in the Staff Support Room (aka "the back room") on the first shuttle flight, it was really a heady experience to be in the Flight Control Room for the second shuttle flight. But I was just an "OJT" guy, Gary was at my side making sure I did all the right things at the right time. On my very first shift, we had a minor problem: the electrical feedback on a motor valve failed which cased the electric motor to stall. I got to tell the CAPCOM to have the crew move a switch in the cockpit which kept the valve from overheating. Whew, the first real crisis of my career. Gary helped me with that problem from the first recognition, through the analysis, to the words to use on the Flight Loop. Problem solved. I started to relax.

Then Billy Moon, the EGIL started an excited conversation with the Flight Director that I didn't quite follow. The EGILs were responsible for the electrical systems onboard the shuttle. This included the fuel cells which generated electricity. The fuel cells are a marvel of modern technology; about the size and shape of a large trash can, they converted cryogenic hydrogen and cryogenic oxygen into drinking water and electricity. They could loaf along at 3 or 4 kilowatts -- about what my house uses when the kids leave the lights on and the airconditioner running -- or up to around 18 kW in an emergency situation for limited periods of time. And they only cost about $15 million apiece. The shuttle runs on electricity; there are no batteries. If the three fuel cells are turned off, the shuttle is dead; the computers don't run, the hydraulics don't run, the rocket engines don't fire, nothing works. So its kinda important to keep them healthy.

Billy Moon was telling the Flight Director that symptoms indicated one of the fuel cells was "breaking down". The catalyst material which separates the hydrogen and oxygen was developing holes. Billy wanted to shut the fuel cell down and close the valves to the hydrogen and oxygen supply lines. This was serious. The Flight Rules required early termination of the mission if a fuel cell failed. Flight had to be sure that EGIL knew what he was doing before taking a drastic step like that. After all, this was only the second day of a planned five day mission. This problem was clearly a lot more important than my little valve feedback circuit failure which had been resolved with no mission impact.

The discussion on the Flight loop got more and more heated. EGIL wanted action and Flight was waffling. Billy Moon stood up and turned from his console to face Flight, only about eight feet away. I had a front row seat since the Prop Console was almost directly between EGIL and Flight. Bill's tone of voice and volume were increasing. Finally, Bill Moon did not key his microphone; he broke one of the fundamental Flight Controller Rules: he said loudly and off the loop "THIS IS THE KABOOM CASE, FLIGHT!" If the hydrogen and the oxygen mix improperly, the results would not be good. The Flight Director got the point.

The Flight Director had also been standing up and at this point, he sat down and said: "CAPCOM, tell the crew to shut down fuel cell 1 and close the reactant valves." While CAPCOM was repeating this message over the Air to Ground loop to the crew, we heard Flight dialing the phone and talking with senior management: "You better get over here."

So STS-2 became the first shuttle flight to be shortened. Not many flights have been. There have been more dramatic times in mission control, however. This was just my first.

My drug of choice is the caffeine in the coffee, not the nicotine that the Apollo guys were all addicted to. But some days in the MCC, you don't need caffeine to get your heart rate going.

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