Headlines > News > Mission Control Team Finds Answers During Spacewalk

Mission Control Team Finds Answers During Spacewalk

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Sat Apr 1, 2017 8:46 am via: NASA
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240 miles above Earth, traveling 12 times the speed of a bullet, a cloth blanket gets away during a spacewalk and immediately drifts out of reach, into space, away from the space station, forever. It’s no danger to the astronauts as it floats away, but immediately there is a new problem:

An important station docking port needs that blanket for protection from the extremes of space, and now it is gone.

Flight Director Emily Nelson and Capcom Anne McClain in Houston work to come up with a plan to replace a lost thermal and micrometeoroid shield during a spacewalk.  Credits: NASA/James Blair

Flight Director Emily Nelson and Capcom Anne McClain in Houston work to come up with a plan to replace a lost thermal and micrometeoroid shield during a spacewalk. Credits: NASA/James Blair

That’s when you call Houston, or more likely Houston calls you first, and Mission Control finds an answer.

“This was the kind of thing we train for,” said Mission Control Flight Director Emily Nelson “Most of the time we get issues like this to work inside the station. We have a multi-layered team that comes together to solve problems. This is probably the most visible version of this we’ve had in a long time, but we solve problems large and small with some frequency. It’s part of operating a complex orbiting space station.”

Nelson oversaw the work to come up with a solution for protecting the docking port and its critical seal with a used cover during the March 30 spacewalk. The used cover had been removed earlier in the spacewalk from another piece of station equipment, and it wasn’t designed to fit in place of the lost blanket.

“People ask me who came up with the idea to use that cover,” she said. “Honestly, all the people in the building watched the crew wrestle with that cover (the one eventually used to substitute for the lost shield) earlier in the day, so it occurred to everybody almost simultaneously that ‘Hey, we’ve got a cover that’s roughly the right size and we just stuck that in the airlock, so maybe we could use it?’”

“That’s true,” said John Mularski, the lead EVA, or spacewalk, officer. “Everybody watching the video had the exact same idea, but then somebody had to implement the details of it.”

“Using the cover was pretty obvious, but knowing we were going to be able to find a way to securely tether it so that we wouldn’t constrain any further ISS operations — that part was not at all obvious,” Nelson said.

As has been the case many times past in both famous and everyday instances, Mission Control faced the challenge of not only fitting a square peg into a round hole, but also doing it on deadline and making it work as if the two were made to go together.

“Anne McClain, our spacewalk communicator astronaut, and Steve Bowen, an experienced spacewalker who was working as our spacecraft communicator for the day, sanity checked how we were going to do that,” Nelson said. “Anne did a phenomenal job of reading the concept to the crew. The crew then did a phenomenal job understanding and visualizing what we really wanted.

Mission support personnel in Houston work to come up with a plan to replace a lost thermal and micrometeoroid shield during a spacewalk.  Credits: NASA/James Blair

Mission support personnel in Houston work to come up with a plan to replace a lost thermal and micrometeoroid shield during a spacewalk. Credits: NASA/James Blair

“The crew was doing it in the dark so that made it more complicated. We had a great camera view of the big picture but had no light. When the sun came up, we used the robotic arm camera to see we were in a good configuration.”

“From the moment we realized the shield had escaped to the time we had it fixed was about 2 hours and 20 minutes,” Mularski added.

“The unique aspect of this problem was the need for our greater team to work incredibly quickly,” Nelson explained. “It was designers, analysts and engineers who work behind the scenes, working with operations engineers, flight controllers, and crew members.”

“Everyone on the broader team comes from a different perspective. We all have our different expertise. But the team works together to make sure we’re doing the right things, and at the end of the day we need to make sure we’re making the situation better and not in some way making it worse,” added Daren Welsh, the EVA flight controller who was responsible for working with engineering teams to develop the technical details of the solution and creating a plan the team could execute.

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