08. Mission Control - A Short History

Submitted by sondra on Sun, 09/11/2011 - 10:38am

By Richard Wallace, The Museum of Flight Mission Control during the Apollo 14 mission, in January 1971 - Phot Courtesy of NASA

When Apollo 11 safely returned to Earth after a seven-day trip to the moon, America’s astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, were given a hero’s welcome. Yet the success of man’s first exploration of another world goes well beyond the contributions of these three brave men. Thousands of people actively participated in this historic lunar mission. Every maneuver of the Saturn 5 rocket, the Command and Service modules and the lunar lander was carefully plotted out by engineers on the ground in a room in Houston, Texas, known as Mission Control Center (MCC).

This sophisticated operations center was a vast change from rocketry’s rough-and-tumble beginnings.

For Robert Goddard in the late 1920s and early 1930s, flight control consisted of a small shack near his launching site on the outskirts of Roswell, New Mexico. His tracking system was a stopwatch and his own two eyes. In Germany, the world’s first rocket port, Raketenflugplazt, established at an abandoned German army munitions dump in a northern part of Berlin, began rocket testing in September 1930. Sometimes the rocket experimenters would have to run for cover when an errant rocket went off course.

The development of the V2 rocket in the late 1930s was a major step forward in flight control. Early models were equipped with an analog computer that could change the angle of the rocket’s trajectory. The length of the flight was controlled by the moment the engine was cut off. This maneuver was ground-controlled by a Doppler system or by accelerometers aboard the rocket.

Because the V2 was created as an instrument of war, the Germans designed a very successful mobile launching system for the rocket. A convoy of trucks carrying the missile, launching crew, equipent and fuel would be transported to a launching site. Only 90 minutes were required from arrival at the location to the firing of the rocket.

At the end of World War II, many German rocket scientists, including Werner von Braun, came to the United States where they continued their work on rockets and missiles. By the late 1950s, the United States was aggressively pursuing a plan to put an American into space. To track the progress of such a mission would require the smooth coordination of a number of flight control teams, both in Houston and at radar tracking stations around the world.

So, a centralized Mission Control Center was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  

Mission Control Today

During the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs (1959 – 1972) the Mission Operations Control room coordinated all facets of Mission Control. (In The Museum of Flight’s new exhibition, Space: Exploring the New Frontier, there are some of the original computer consoles from those days of Mission Control.) After Apollo, this room has been reconfigured several times for the various space programs supported by Mission Control.

Today, the MCC at NASA’s Johnson Space Center comprises two centers: the Shuttle Mission Control Center and the Mission Control Center for the ISS (International Space Station). Three teams of 50 members each work in 9-hour shifts. The amount of time dedicated to mission support is different at each facility. According to the NASA web site, “Shuttle MCC workers spend about 10 percent of their time controlling missions. Seventy-five percent of their time is spent planning and organizing. For Space Station missions, the amount of real time spent on missions is considerably longer since the project runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Each computer console in the two centers (just like in the former control room) is identified with an acronym that tells you what tasks are performed there. Go to http://ksnn.larc.nasa.gov/rtf/art_peoplebehind.htm for a list of Mission Control Acronyms and job descriptions.

Irrespective of their specific roles in mission support, MCC workers spend time doing simulations which may include unexpected events. These events are called “simfaults” and may involve equipment malefactions or life-threatening accidents. Creative troubleshooting and problem solving are very important skills for Mission Control workers.

Problem Solving in Action

Due to the popularity of the 1995 film “Apollo 13,” today’s students know about the drama that surrounded that aborted mission and the tough decisions made by the people of Mission Control. Other incidents are not so well-known. During the launch of Apollo 12, the spacecraft was hit by lighting, disabling part of its guidance system. The problem was corrected by ground support just seconds after staging and separation of the Saturn 5’s first stage. Just before the beginning of the landing descent of Apollo 14, an abort command came in to the guidance computer aboard the lunar module, which, if followed, would terminate the landing. The descent was delayed; a new computer program was written and inserted and the mission continued.

As we move into the second phase of lunar exploration, the dedicated men and women of Mission Control will continue to play the vital role of planning, organzing and executing our future missions to space.