Small Steps, Giant Leaps: Episode 47, ISS 20 Space Station Complexity
That's the legacy I think it'll be most relevant coming from the station is the international cooperation. It's the I and I S. It's a monstrously complex vehicle. You name the system. There has been an evolution in there about how we actually operate. That's just Station and that's been the most fascinating part from a pure white controller respective to watch that evolution over twenty years. And to imagine what that would look like twenty years now, something I probably Brechfa. Welcome back to small steps. Giant leaps a NASA apple download services podcast featuring interviews and stories that tap into project experiences to share best practices lessons learned and novel ideas. I'm Dean naughtily. We're approaching twenty years of continuous human presence in space on the International Space. Station. Today, we'll conclude our two part series ISS twenty. In the first part episode forty-six, we talked with NASA astronaut Tracy, Caldwell dyson about her experiences living and working aboard the ISS. Guest in the second segment of the series is longtime I S S Flight Director Royce Renfrew. Royce thank you for joining us. Thanks for having deputy. Says has been part of your career with NASA for many years would you share with us your story and how you currently support I'm says. So. Let's see coming up on twenty four years Johnson Survey Center the majority of that too as A. Civil servant I started out as a contractor years years ago. United Space, alliance was looking to. Expand their instructor core from just a bunch of mechanical electrical. Etc Engineers to folks who actually had some. BACKGROUND IN EDUCATION PLUS A. Technical degree in and. Or not one of the reasons I got the job because I was a high school math teacher for seven years and had a degree in computer science and that was. That was one of the reasons they thought I would be able to do good job. I started out there before the first element flew train the. Expedition to and four crews. How To. Operate the robotic system on board, the space station, the space station, remote manipulator system, or Esera mass. Part of the rationale they hired me for that as well as because I put myself through college as a heavy equipment operator so I had the. Hand eye coordination that was necessary to do the job. I had. Several different jobs out there from being an instructor, a transferred to be a controller in the Robo grew. And then I transferred out of there, which was a specialist physician at transferred to a group that doesn't exist anymore called Odan. which was one of the core system like control. That manages the computer system on for space station. Then I was the. First Fine Group lead for. When I was selected as a flight director in two thousand eight. So been out there for a very long time I'm currently in the flight director office. the other hat that I wear in the Director Office is. As one of the directors who is working on Artemis in particular I'm working. The human land, her system Rachel S. portion of artists were were a currently competing with three different companies. Set when that down to to select the two companies, it will take the. Down to the lunar surface and support them while they do spacewalks unfortunately because that's still somewhat of a competition, I really can't tell you too much about what I'm doing with artem 's. Okay we'll we'll try not to pry too deeply here. From your perspective as flight director what's most remarkable about twenty years of continuous human presence on the ISS. It really is a a remarkable accomplishment when you when you really step back and look at that. My. My daughter is twenty four years old. One of the can order remember how much time spent out there. But For the vast majority of revive and the entirety of about people's by observing been human beings aren't living on earth right? They're out there on the space station. We've had a continuous presence out there on the Space Station for coming on twenty years here. Really close. That I think is one of the one of the most interesting things about the space station is the continuous human presence effect that we've had. All earthlings are not on earth The fact that we have representatives from countries all around the world who have been there from Japan Russia to Germany United States obviously, we've had Canadians any A. Large number of countries around the Earth have flown. Crew members to the space station. Through the Russians or the or US but. That's the legacy I. Think it'll be Moshe relevant coming from the space station is international cooperation. It's the I s. so the International Space. Station we do have people on board to station have been there and little boys and girls that the know with somewhere in some country that that I have never been to can turn on the news at night and see their pro or read in the paper and maybe maybe inspire recep that spark in their mind that something an engineering or they want to be an astronaut, they wanna be a flight controller. Maybe, that's something that. I can contribute to. The Human Spaceflight Program generically by supporting those folks on board I. Think That's the most interesting thing that you get out of the space station is the international cooperation that that allowed us to get there. Was Working on an international program enhanced you and your team's experience supporting I guess. It's been very a very interesting experience. We we haven't always seen eye-to-eye with our international partners and I think if you ask them, they would say they haven't always seen eye-to-eye with us. But once we as a community came to understand that. You know we're all really driving for the same end goal is to expand expand. Humans presence in the sewer system, we go about it. In different ways writer, we have different approaches to how to do fly control. We'd have different approaches on how to do training. so what I think. I and the rest of the team really got out of that relationship is a growth in our own ability to operate in space 'cause. Obviously, we don't do everything perfectly, and there are a lot of people do things better than we do and the ability to see somebody. Generate procedure execute. some type of commanding or bill tool to generate timelines or what have you amongst our international partners. We all learn from each other when you when you broaden the input availability and the number of really smart people who are contributing to the program everybody gets better I I'm sure they've learned stuff from us we've learned from them. I honestly believe that that when we go to Mars, it's going to be an international program. So leveraging on what we have done on board, the space station with our international partners for these. Two decades now. To leverage that into designing and building a mission that's going to allow the human race to go to Mars or build a colony on the moon or or a deep space space station or what have you I think that benefit from the International Space Station will be a measurable because we won't be starting from scratch like we did with the space station. Can you walk us through some of your experiences and what you've observed as the space station has evolved over the past couple of decades? Okay. I like I said I started out as a robotic officer, the Canadian Space Agency. Contributed the space station remote manipulator system, and the special purpose decades dexterous manipulator when we first started with the fledgling space station and the and the arm arrived there on the I assess six eight flight. That we really only had the Arben we didn't. We knew how to operate a, but we didn't know how to operate it as as we do today. In in when we first got the arm on board every time you wanted to operate that system crew had to move it. Right. We designed procedures for the crew when we verified all the trajectories and we understood all the forces and moments and how much the arm take how fast it could move and we did all that Legwork Ford eminem produced a procedure for them to go execute they then they did that. In today's world, the crew hardly ever touches the SRS except to do grapples of free flying cargo vehicles. But the rest of the operations for that system is done from the ground either from Houston or for. Montreal. With the flight controllers doing those activities remotely. So there they are actually operating the arm from Houston for Martha algae and all those maneuvers. The crew to my knowledge is never actually even operated the special purpose dexterous manipulator, the spam. And we use that all the time to change out broken hardware or do this survey or or a number are closed doors on payloads do a number of things with the SP dance. So the point there is That where we started from and where we are today has has evolved greatly over the years and the the same thing holds true for all of the systems on space station, I remember being a robotics flight controller. On console for some shuttle mission. When the shuttle arrived, there the flight it had suffered a failure going up hill and and did not have its Vernier jets available only had its course jets available. So per the flight rules. Going in the mission the the step down from shuttle Vernier jets was to use A. Progress or so US I don't remember which one it was. it must have been a progress. Jets, to the newer the ISS backwards with which is the way we always with shuttle missions and it took us the entire progress vehicle worth of fuel to do that. And today we can very smart about how to do those things we could actually translate their rotate the. Hundred and eighty degrees using just a pittance. Maybe you know eleven or twelve grams prop because we do these things called zero prominent over. So the point is that's another evolution we went from. The having to fly all of our water up to recovering eighty percent of the water on station that we do today the the CD, a the command and data handling system has evolved to where we have new processor cards in the end the. You name the system. There has been an evolution in there about how we actually operate that system of station, and that's been the most fascinating part from pure flight control were perspective to watch that evolution over the twenty years that we've been there and to imagine what that would look like twenty years from now something I probably couldn't even recognize. Thinking about the complexity of ISS. How would you characterize the magnitude of the space station and what it takes to keep it operating with humans living and working in space twenty, four, seven year after year. It's a it is a very complex vehicle, right? It really is. And the complexity is increased obviously because the international component right we have to, we have to match up all of those systems on one international partners element to another international partners element. So the code that. Some some person here in the states, rights in the code that somebody in Japan wrote have to talk to each other right. So the when you get down to engineering and computer science, it's probably easier to do that than it is to do with the human stock into each other, but but it is a hugely complicated vehicle. And what we try to do with the ISS is manage all of it from the ground. So we fly it. We keep it pointed straight and level or backwards, and upside down depending on on what the case may require We we make sure the air's breathable in the water is drinkable in the toilet works and all of those things that that would normally have to be done by the crew member on board that say the shuttle we do from the ground and what that enables is the crew to to do as much science as they possibly can and that's really been. The biggest evolution that we've had for ISS is going from a vehicle that we were assembling. Until we got to the point where we call it assembly complete even though we still added a few more modules in an updated a few things but add assembly complete we started looking at how to do scientific research on the vehicle. So, that's what we use. The crew for do as much scientific research as they can hands on in an ever again, help us out because we need somebody to turn it rancher throughout Switcher, check a circuit breaker or something power all laptop. That, we can't actually do from the ground. So you take all of the complexity of the vehicle and you add five international partners in control centers all over the world. The vehicle itself has complicated the systems we have developed on the ground to be able to coordinate the operations between all of the control centers adds to that complexity I. Really think it is a hugely complicated vehicle fortunately, you never really hear A. Whole lot about space station anymore used to when we were building out of out of feathers but we really know how to much better about how to operate the vehicle now so that you don't hear a lot about I s in the in the news anymore because the complexity we have, we have managed to start getting our hands around the complexity of the vehicle and understand how how it actually operates in Oregon. Really what's it like to be a flight director and to be that person who is ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of humans in space and the orbiting facility that keeps them safe and provides valuable science far planet. it being a flight director is eight hours and forty five minutes of not doing a whole lot followed by fifteen minutes of sheer terror often right? It really is it's It's it's staggering sometimes when you allow yourself to think about the responsibility that you have. the six human beings that live on board the space station whose lives are literally in your hands when you're setting in the in the control, center at the flight director console that's where the buck stops there there is no other option. The flight director has to make the calls in real time. Those are the agreements that we have with the program by the way. And those are the same agreements we've had with all programs. NASA has flown in the human spaceflight program is that the flight director is authorized to take any action that the that he or she deemed necessary to to save the crew vehicle. or to complete the objectives of the mission. So that's an awesome amount of power in an awesome amount of responsibility, but I will tell you that that. Though I showed her all that when I go on console would enables me to do that are the people who surround me right the the people who were sitting at those consoles around me in e those the Capcom that send me or the. Air Space Walk Officer who set behind me. You're the ground controller who's operating the building. I am heavily reliant on all of those individual council operators at any time I in that room, it's we talked about the complexity of it earlier it's it's a monstrous we complex vehicle. There is no way that a single person can can operate all of it. So not even the flight director, the directors donal everything. Some time surprises, the junior flight controllers but I am very much dependent on the junior and senior flight controllers in my room the flight controllers in in Munich in those in Scuba nosing over at the soup in Moscow, all of those folks Who are professional flight controllers? It is their job to monitor those systems control vehicle under the direction of a flight director set in there, and the flight director in Houston is the person that is the last gas, right? The the person who has the last say on how something is going to occur is that person that set in that flight director. Counseling. HOUSTON. What are some of the key lessons learned from says that you think could be difference makers for program and project managers across the Agency I. Think it's very important for people to understand at going forward in what I envision as a renaissance of space. Exploration. In this century where we really start looking to the moon, we start looking we have a space station spinner for twenty years maybe we built another one. We're going to go bill a facility on the moon more than likely. We're GONNA, go build a facility on Mars where people can live their lives for auct-, wretches at a time. The biggest lessons learned that I would take away from us as being able to do that is it's it's not the hardware it's not the it's not the software it's not the Whizbang new drive that we've developed for some spacecraft. It literally is the people that make that happen right it's the people that work for the program. It's the people that worked for flight operations. It's the people that work in the engineering directorates and do all the tests analysis. I can't go do something that's as outrageous as bill the habitat for someone to live on the surface of boon for extended periods of time and not be an inaccessible danger without that person who did the all those tests on that software? Who did all that all those tests on that processor for the Otago system or that water system that toilet system or whatever system you want That's the biggest it's. It's always going to be the people and and That's what we should recognize going in and do whatever. We can as managers to enable people to do their job. Quickly successfully. Efficiently and have all the materials and and communications links and flat or as flat as we can get it communications, lines let them do all that vertical integration to us, but make sure they have the ability to do all that horizontal integration to all those people that are doing all those other things. That's the most important. That's the biggest takeaway I think I've got out of working in the space program period is that one of the things they say, Jaycee, all the time is that it's the people that make us fly in that in. That is absolutely true. When you reflect on the ISS team and success stories over these twenty years of continuous human presence. What are a couple of your favorites? You know what? That one of the favorite stories I have about ISS generically. Or tying the last conversation that I had talked about people into that conversation. Houston several years ago had the ill fortune of being on the dirty side of hurricane name Harvey that came in well south of us, and we all thought that we were going to get a little bit of rain and that was gonna be okay. Because it was gonNA come in south of us and we weren't GonNa get the brunt of the hurricane-force winds in Houston. As it turned out, it did come in south of us in the folks down south of us really got battered by those hurricane force winds. But what Herbie. Did was set up a chain of rain bands that that effectively rolled right over the city, a Houston and clear like where. Webster were Johnson Space Center is ray effectively straight up interstate forty five from Galveston to Houston just got rained on perpetually for five days. And it was a huge event. Everybody in Houston was somehow impacted. We we had hundreds if not thousands of of. Houses that were flooded and and cars were stalled and it was just a mess. As it turned out, there was a flight control team in mission control in Houston because we literally had not anticipated that Harvey was going to be that bad, right. We have a bunch of protocols that we use during hurricanes where we send people. To. Marshall Stand up a backup control center if we need to set her for hurricane and we've exercised that a number of times over the years. But because of what we thought was going to happen with this hurricane, we did not exercise protocol. Because we thought we were going to get some rain and it was GONNA be bad but it wasn't gonNA be terrible. No one ever expected the five hundred year flood. So we had a, we had a group of flight controllers who were in Houston in the control centre, and we actually had enough flight controllers there to to stand up to different teams. So each team was executing thirteen hour shifts with what our handover in between. Perpetually, we normally have three shifts a day. So we were down to just two. And they were literally sleeping in the control centre because they were trapped they're the only way that they'd get out of the control center is with a high water vehicle and and. I my house is close enough to the control center that I managed afford some of the streams and get there in my high water pickup. And I spent some time with those folks that have to tell you the only time in my entire career at NASA that I ever saw the white flight control room where the shuttle all the time the only time I've ever seen that room completely powered down was during this event where they turned off all the lights in the clocks and the whole nine yards and went in and put in. cots between the consoles there where people could come off console and grab some sleep before they go back on council twelve hours better and to me the the fortitude and the professionalism of the people who did that during Hurricane Harvey, just really demonstrates the the cavalry of people that NASA. Attract right the they. They weren't complaining about the fact that they were scavenging Outta, the vending machines nobody had a place to shower for five days right? Then we finally found a in close enough that people could walk to overtake share but they haven't acquaint caused with them because they were trapped there right. So but there wasn't any complaining about this or complaining about that they just did their job and I think the they're really telling piece of this relatively long story I apologize. Is that the crew who did not know that the flight controllers were trapped in Houston One of the fight directors who was on console happen to be friends with the kindergarten teacher teacher whatever it was. And they were communicating back and forth about what was going on and they were trapped in the building that Cetera et Cetera. So this kindergarten teacher had all of her students make some really adorable little cards for the flight controllers saying thank you for you know keeping the astronauts safe and I'm sorry you can't get out of the building and Blah Blah Blah and sent them all to this fight director who then turned around she thought they were adorable. She turned around and set them up to the to the crew on orbit in a little while. Later somebody opened their email and calcified record council. Wants this mean you guys have been trapped on console for the last five days in and she had to confess at that was true. Right they could get out of the building. but I think that is completely indicative of the professionalism of the people that NASA attracts right the timelines were were not any different that commands were coming up when they were expected the crew is still executing doing science they were doing you know invite maintenance they were doing whatever task needed to be done on board station at a rhythm and pace just like we had when Harvey wasn't there. So one of my favorite stories about NASA in general is, is that story about the flight controllers who did their job? So well, the crew couldn't even tell that they were having a problem. How would you summarize the significance of I? S S and its impact on humankind? Do you find that people understand the significance of ice says? You know I don't right I I don't think that the. Public at large really has a good understanding of what I s is and what I isis does for them. There are literally hundreds of scientific experiments or longtime longer. Projects that are being conducted on board the Space Station every day some of them involve the crew, some of them are outside. Never really fascinating payload on the outside called, the Alpha, magnetic trauma ter- that is trying to find dark matter in the universe right? It's collaboration by a bunch of. ASTROPHYSICISTS that work out at Cernan and France. That have a collaboration with hundreds of of like minded scientists around the world and built in. We flew this piece of hardware called the AMS input on the outside station, and we're looking up to see You know if we can discover dot matter and the. Crew members on board. The station are perpetually using themselves as a research subjects working at osteoporosis and and. How vaccines could be generated the Salmonella. Actually mutates incredibly fast onboard the space station which allows researchers to really understand that particular bug. And and it's not the only one that mutates fast something about being in zero g environment does that and we're also spending a great deal of time looking down on the earth from a from a very unique perspective with human beings, taken pictures or robotic cameras, taking pictures or various instruments that are looking at wave heights and ozone concentrations and deforestation or their growth of Phoenix Arizona for the last twenty years because we over at every couple of days and we can take pictures right. So, I think the the population at large really doesn't appreciate or understand what the ISS is is trying to do for them and I think that primarily comes from the fact that we don't launch things right? There's no. There's no fire and smoke at Kennedy, with a vehicle lift off the pad, we just go round the Earth fifteen and a half times a day traveling you know seventeen and a half thousand miles an hour every day for the last twenty years in, and if we don't know something doesn't break on board station or one of the crew members is not doing. A public affairs event with their hometown in high school or something public large really doesn't know where there and I've had. I've had a number of people over the years express you know alarm that NASA still exists and tell me that I can't believe Johnson Space. Center is still there after the shuttle stop flying what have you guys been doing for the last seventeen years? That's always disheartening I don't know how to solve that problem, but I do know that that station. Long after I'm gone, they'll still be figuring out answers from the research that has going on onboard station today. Do, you anticipate the future. Of ISS. One of the one of the things that we have been working on diligently is is what's referred to as the commercialization of lower orbit right so There are a number of contractors out there who were looking at. Adding elements to the space station that the contractor buys and builds and flies and we attached space station. That allows them to use the space station as a platform. With, the power data and video and all the resources that they need right there but then they can add their element to do whatever scientific research that they want to do There are a number of entities out there that are doing things. Talking about flying civilians to the space station that I've seen that in news a couple of times. It. Is My belief in and and maybe I'm paraphrasing a bunch of folks who have said this. Is the what NASA needs to do is get out of low-earth orbit, the business of lower orbit and turnover to commercial partners commercial entities. Maybe eventually someday actually turning over the ISS to some commercial entity to continue operating and and redirect those funds that that NASA is currently pouring into the Iot says to to pushing the envelope out to the moon out to Mars. Maybe another the gateway space station we're talking about orbiting the moon or maybe there's something in the range points that we need to build. something. I I'm not sure but I do think that we have demonstrated enough years that people can fly safely in low-earth-orbit. and and we should turn it over to commercial elements and do things that governments need to take the risk sean rather than add companies right? It's a it's a very risky proposition to fly somebody the moon it really is, yes we did it a long time ago but now we want to go back to stay and and that is a very risky proposition and that risk pales in comparison of flying people to Mars and and maybe building habitat on Mars. Where we can stay. So I think you know do the Moon I get comfortable that go to Mars and eventually turn over the moon to those commercial entities and eventually turn over marsh of commercial entities. So we could go look at things like the moons of Jupiter or a move farther into the solar system. I think that's the progression that we need to go through and I think we're GonNa see that first step when when Moore commercialisation of low-earth orbit occur. Really, it has been so enjoyable having you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. I. Am happy to be here. Thanks for having me and asking a lot of good questions hopefully folks got some insight. Alan sure that they did I know I did really do appreciate. Do you have any closing thoughts? I have done this for a very long time. As thing about the almost sixty, I've spent a large portion of my of my life involved in. The brand. That is NASA. I, think that. It is recognized worldwide as the really cool people science folks that work at NASA you go one of the things i. Always tell young flight controllers that come to work out a JSE is. that. They should take a vacation at once a year where they travel at least a hundred miles away from Johnson Space Center. Go home go someplace. They'd never been go to you know a breakfast place or go to a go to a bar or some time in the union in eventually somebody is GonNa ask them what they do for a living. And when they say they work for NASA. That's GonNa be the start of a conversation because you can't tell someone in the United States anyone. You can't go anywhere in the United States say I work for NASA and have that person shrug their shoulders and say, well, that's cool. It just doesn't happen right that they're curious. They're interested they want to know what you do and where the aliens buried and know. All of those questions that you yet and to me what that does for those young flight controllers is explain to them again or emphasize them again why they came to work out here the first one. And recognize how cool really the job is that they have that they get push the envelope of the human presence in this solar system. That's really what they do for a living. Right there might be a flight controller engineering they might work program, they might design you know the flux capacitor or whatever it is that they're working on the job description really is if you work for NASA that you're they, you are pushing the envelope of human presence in the cellar says, that's what you do. No matter what your dial in. And if you lose that. Excitement for too long you shouldn't be working at your yearly. But if you start losing. Go somewhere let people recharge your batteries, but if you can walk into your office or I walked the distance from my bedroom to my dining room that as with all this stuff going on. But I'm still completely jazzed every day to set down and talk to people about how we were going to land human beings on the face of the moon and return them back to Earth happy and worked through all those problems wicked, all those Engineering Zion cases and and talk about this controller that controller this aspect of that system or another, and that's what I spend my day doing in I can't get excited about doing that job than than I should quit. I should just hang up, hang up my spurs and go home because that's the coolest job on her with the there is no cooler job. You throw a job out there and I will challenge you that and I assess flight director who's news real job description is I said on council on operate a multibillion dollar spacecraft where we do scientific research was sixteen things. That's my job. Right. If I can't get excited to do that I should just be. linked. To topics discussed during our conversation are available on our website at apple dot NASA dot Gov Slash podcast along with Royce's bio and to show transcript. For more interviews about the twentieth anniversary of continuous human presence on the INS s check out Houston we have a podcast and other NASA podcasts at NASA dot Gov Slash podcast. If there's a topic you'd like for us to feature in a future episode. Please let us know on twitter at NASA apple that's APP e. l. and used the Hashtag small steps. Giant leaps as always. Thanks for listening.