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Steve Gauvain, Shuttle Rendezvous Instructor
Docking two spacecraft can be complicated.

When bringing together two massive spacecraft, both moving at about 17,500 miles per hour, an astronaut has to be very careful. One mistake, and it could be a bad day.

Gauvain holds a model of a shuttle while talking to an astronaut candidate

Gauvain helped the latest class of astronauts learn more about spacecraft orientation. Image Credit: NASA

And that's just the "how" of docking two spacecraft. The "why" of rendezvous and docking can be even more complicated. Astronauts can know how to bring two spacecraft together without really understanding why the process works the way it does. Orbital mechanics, the physics of how things move around a celestial body, can be a rather arcane science.

For example, on the ground, if someone driving a vehicle wants to get closer to something up ahead, all that person would need to do is increase the vehicle's speed. In orbit, it is not that simple. Accelerate toward the target, and it may slip away.

"It seems kind of backwards," explains Steve Gauvain, a NASA rendezvous and proximity operations instructor for Space Shuttle Endeavour's STS-118 mission. "Even though you speed up, you slow down relative to the other vehicle, because your altitude increases."

Gauvain is responsible for teaching space shuttle crews all they need to know to successfully connect their spacecraft to the International Space Station. Fortunately for him -- and his students -- that doesn’t necessarily include advanced studies in orbital mechanics.

"The good thing is, in order to fly it, you don't have to 100 percent understand all of the science behind it," he said. "It's like driving a car. You don't have to understand how to build a car to drive one."

Shuttle rendezvous training begins about six months before launch. As with much astronaut training, the first lessons take place in a classroom environment. With his students, Gauvain covers the basics of the systems involved, and, even if it's not going to be on a test, provides an introduction to orbital mechanics.

Once the basics have been covered, computer models are used to demonstrate the classroom lessons. From there, the crewmembers move to hands-on learning, using a variety of simulators to practice the rendezvous and docking procedures. These simulators include everything from the Shuttle Mission Simulator, where the entire crew trains in a full-size mock-up, to the Dynamic Skills Trainer, where one astronaut can practice alone on what is essentially a desktop computer.

Metcalf-Lindenburger holds a ball and a model of a shuttle

Educator Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger works with a model of a shuttle during one of Gauvain's classes. Image Credit: NASA

"They can take a concept that we've taught them and go practice it, because it takes practice to make you good at something," Gauvain said. And docking is something the person flying the shuttle has to be good at; it's definitely a precision job. "We bring [the shuttle and station] together at a rate of 0.1 feet per second, and we have to hit the docking target within three inches of center." Considering the size and mass of the two spacecraft, it's an impressive feat.

In another part of astronaut training, once the crewmembers have mastered the basics of a normal rendezvous and docking, Gauvain exposes them to unforeseen, or "off-nominal," situations as well. "We spend some time doing some failure scenarios," he said.

About three months before the flight, the astronauts begin integrated simulations with Mission Control. These simulations allow the crew and the flight controllers to practice working together during rendezvous and docking. "Not only do I train the crewmembers, but also Mission Control," Gauvain said.

One of the most interesting parts of the job, Gauvain said, is watching how different crews come together in figuring out their roles. "It's not one person doing it; it's a team of people that do it," he said. "The goal is to get all those people together to form something better than each individual."

After his duties with STS-118 are complete, Gauvain will next work with the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis' STS-124 mission, which will deliver the Japanese Kibo experiment module to the space station. But he's already looking even further into the future, as part of a team helping to design the cockpit for the next-generation Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the moon.

The space shuttle as photographed from the space station

Gauvain's work includes training astronauts to do the inspection maneuvers the shuttle performs after leaving the space station. Image Credit: NASA

Gauvain said that he grew up enthralled with the space program, and that he's very glad to be a part of it today. When he was a child, his father was a reporter who covered NASA for a local television station. "I'd get to tag along and look around," he said. "So growing up, I always thought space was kind of a cool thing."

After earning his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Rice University, he attended a job fair where he learned about a position as a shuttle navigation instructor. He began doing that in 1997 and started rendezvous training in 2004. He is employed by NASA contractor United Space Alliance. STS-118 is his first mission as a lead rendezvous instructor. "I love my job," he said. "It's a great job to have."

Gauvain said he enjoys being involved in public outreach efforts such as leading tours, in hopes of stimulating the sort of interest that he felt as a child. "Flying in space is very inspiring, and I think it's my job to make sure everybody can experience my enthusiasm for it and how exciting spaceflight is."

NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation’s future by emphasizing three major education goals -- attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines; strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce; and engaging Americans in NASA's mission. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America’s young people, NASA is focused on supporting formal and informal educators to engage and retain students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.

Related Resources
STS-118 Shuttle Mission
NASA Space Shuttle
NASA International Space Station
NASA Office of Education Web Site   →
Vision for Space Exploration
NASA Johnson Space Center
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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services