STS-107 In Their Own Words
January 29, 2008
An Inside Look at Columbia's Last Minutes (Page 1 of 2)
By Philip Chien

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Mission Control at the time contact was lost with Columbia. The image has enough detail so that you can actually read the board which contains Columbia's last statistics. The Flight Director, Leroy Cain,  is standing in the center. (Click The Image To Enlarge It) NASA.

On any space shuttle mission the astronauts get the most attention - and they should.  They get the glamorous job of actually flying in space and are certainly the most visible portion of any shuttle mission.  But just as important is Mission Control, the team of engineers which tells the astronauts what to do and act as their backups on the ground.  Most space fans are aware of the "Flight Control Room" which insiders call the 'front room'.  That's where the flight director oversees a team of a couple of dozen specialized engineers.  The 'back rooms' consist of additional more specialized engineers which support the front room.  For example, one of the key positions in the front room is the "FDO" (pronounced 'fido'), the flight dynamics officer.  FDO is responsible for the space shuttle's motion - predicting the shuttle's path.  While the shuttle's on orbit the FDO is responsible for calculating the shuttle's orbit, maneuvers from the shuttle's maneuvering engines, and even when the shuttle astronauts can see their counterparts aboard the International Space Station.  During the shuttle's entry the FDO is responsible for calculating whether the shuttle should land from north to south or south to north based on the winds and the sun angles, where the shuttle should touchdown on the runway, and coordinating with emergency landing facilities among other tasks.  That's far too much work for a single person so the FDO has a 'back room' which consists of more specialized engineers who handle the individual functions.  The term 'back room' shouldn't be taken literally though, some are in the same building, others are in separate locations.

Happier Times - Flight Directors LeRoy Cain (left) and Steve Stich are pictured at their consoles in the shuttle flight control room (WFCR) in Houston’s Mission Control Center (MCC). At the time this photo was taken the Space Shuttle Columbia was about to launch at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida (NASA)

The mission control team does countless simulations before each mission, normal ones which simulate what they expect to encounter during the mission and training simulations where the training team constantly creates simulated problems.  With all of the training when there are problems in flight the team acts mostly on instinct, relying on their training.

Each flight controller has his or her own communications 'loop' (channel) where they can talk to their back rooms and other support personnel.  In addition there's a flight director's loop where the flight director keeps in contact with everybody in the front room, plus the air-to-ground circuit where the capcom (a shortened version of "Capsule Communicator") talks to the shuttle.  As a rule most flight controllers monitor the flight director's loop, their own loops with their engineers, and the air-to-ground transmissions.  Normally the public only hears the air-to-ground plus commentary from NASA's public affairs staff.  But because of the high interest after the Columbia accident the flight
director's loop has been released.  The loop covers about an hour, from 8:34 am EST when Columbia was traveling over the Pacific Ocean to the West of Hawaii, until after the accident.  Throughout the entire day the flight controllers are extremely professional and never show any signs of emotional breakdown, even after they're aware that an accident has
occurred.  They had to hold their own feelings in check until after they completed the post-accident procedures.

Coming Soon - Interspacenews.net has an exclusive time-compressed version of the flight director's loop.  All of the silent portions have been removed and the final length is about 15 minutes.  You will be able to download by clicking HERE later this week.  It's important to remember when listening to the audio that it is time compressed, so events may appear to occur very rapidly which took place several minutes apart.

Here's the important personnel who can be heard on the loop and their responsibilities -

CDR - Commander Rick Husband aboard Columbia.

PLT - Pilot Willie McCool. 

The other astronauts, as typical for reentry, would not be heard on the air-to-ground transmissions.

Flight Director (FLIGHT DIRECTOR), call sign "Flight," serves as leader of the flight control team. "Flight" is  responsible for overall Shuttle mission and payload operations and is responsible for all decisions regarding safe, expedient flight conduct.  Leroy Cain was Columbia's flight director for reentry.  He was assisted by Steve Stich.

Spacecraft Communicator (CAPCOM), call sign "Capcom," serves as the primary communicator between flight control and astronauts. The initials are a holdover from earlier manned spaceflight, when Mercury was called a capsule
rather than a spacecraft.  Charlie "Scorch" Hobaugh was the capcom, assisted by Duane Carey.

Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO), call sign "Fido," defines Shuttle performance capability during ascent, plans and targets all orbital translational maneuvers, including the critical deorbit maneuver for the Shuttle's return to Earth.  The FDO was Richard Jones.

Instrumentation and Communications Systems Engineer (INCO), call sign "In-Co," plans and monitors in-flight communications and instrumentation systems configurations.  The INCO was Laura Hoppe

Maintenance, Mechanical and Crew Systems Engineer, (MMACS), call sign "Max," monitors the orbiter's structural and mechanical systems, and follows use of onboard crew hardware and in-flight equipment maintenance.  MMACS was Jeff Kling.

Emergency, Environmental and Consumables Systems Engineer (EECOM), call sign "EECOM," monitors avionics and cabin cooling systems, and cabin pressure control systems.  The EECOM was Katie Rogers.

Ground Control (GC), call sign "GC," directs maintenance and operation activities affecting Mission Control hardware, software and support facilities, coordinates spaceflight tracking and data network and tracking and data relay satellite system (TDRSS) with Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).  The GC was Bill Foster.

MOD is Mission Operations Directorate, an experienced flight director who serves as the overall manager for flight operations.  That position was filled by  Phil Engelhauf.

Guidance, Navigation, and Control Systems Engineer (GNC), call sign "GNC," monitors all vehicle guidance, navigation and control systems, notifies Flight Director and crew of impending abort situations, advises crew
regarding guidance malfunctions.  Mike Sarafin was the GNC.


Guidance Officer (GDO), call sign "Guidance," ensures the onboard navigation and onboard guidance computer software executes tasks to accomplish mission objectives.

There are several additional flight controllers who were not heard on the loops, and also positions which are not used during entries like Spacewalks), and PDRS (robot arm operations).  Here's a link to a Mission Control fact sheet describing all of the FCR positions - http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/news/factsheets/mccfact.html

NOTE: This transcript and the annotations is copyrighted by Interpsacenews.com and may not be copied without permission.  It shows what happened in mission control during Columbia's reentry on the STS-107 mission.  Times are approximate to within +/- five seconds. Special thanks to ex-NASA Flight Dynamics Officer Roger Balettie and others for clarification on some of the technical terms. 

Goto Page 2 (transcript of mission control dialog)

 

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