BLAIR: Sarah, this is really awesome to be here in the Range Control Center. I’ve got to tell you I’m a little nervous being around all this equipment. You’re certain that there’s nothing I can do that will accidently launch anything or cause any disruption out on the pad?
SARAH: No, there is nothing you can do right from here that will actually ignite the rocket or send it anywhere that we don’t want it to go.
BLAIR: That’s a relief. One question I have is I’ve seen mission controls or range control scenes before. You always see the people at the different computer stations. You see all the data. You just wonder what are they doing? They look calm. They look like they’re in control but what kind of things are they doing at each of the stations throughout the room?
SARAH: Here, in the range control center, the people at these stations would be monitoring the status of the launch vehicle or the payload of the spacecraft, the experiment that is on board the rocket. They’re also watching how the range is getting ready, doing radar tests, doing surveillance and things like that. They’re mostly concerned with their launch vehicle or their payload or experiment and they’re monitoring all that status from here.
BLAIR: And you also get to monitor this at the same time as Test Director.
SARAH: Yes. Yep, we are many times listening to multiple channels on the communications net and keep apprise of everything that is going on with the launch vehicle’s status and the payload status.
BLAIR: I see you have these phones here on the console. Can you call and order pizza or anything if it’s a particularly long launch window?
SARAH: Certainly. There’s always food somewhere here in the Control Center or somewhere close by to keep the team energized as we’re going through it.
BLAIR: Now, you’ve launched primarily over the ocean but what other kinds of missions to you primarily focus on here at Wallops?
SARAH: We have a number of different types of missions and that includes sounding rockets, which are suborbital, and ELB launches, which are orbital type rockets that put a spacecraft or satellite into a orbit. Sounding rockets are for scientific research. They are in space for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes maybe.
BLAIR: Are the operations in this room sort of scaled back from say an orbital launch?
SARAH: Yes, they are just that. So the team is tailored to the size of the mission. A sounding rocket launch has less people dedicated to that rocket then an ELB launch or one for spacecraft is much larger team. As you can imagine, the two systems are different in size and complexity.
BLAIR: As Test Director, what kind of perks do you get for the job? Do you get to push the launch button or do you get to reward members of the team by say “yes, you Blair, the co-host, I’ll let you push the launch button for this flight? How does that work?
SARAH: No perks, just the knowing there’s a job well done. As Launch Director, really, the ultimate responsibility lies on us to decide whether or not the team is ready to launch. We have the “go,” “no go” decision on launch days.
BLAIR: If you can’t press the launch button or don’t press it, you can press the “do not launch” button.
SARAH: That is true.
BLAIR: What kinds of things prevent a launch from taking place at its scheduled time?
SARAH: Sure. There are a number of things that could lead to that. An issue, or malfunction with the launch vehicle itself or the payload, maybe the batteries aren’t charging properly.
BLAIR: That sounds like my phone.
SARAH: Yeah, exactly. The communication lines are not getting through how the team thought it was getting through. There are things external to that that could stop us. There might be boats or aircraft in our hazard areas that we’re trying to clear out.
BLAIR: How do you get people out? Do you call them up and say we’re going to launch. You better watch out.
SARAH: We do communicate with the public, with the local Coast Guard here before launches. We give them what we call Notice to Mariners that describes the area we’re going to be launching in. It outlines the coordinates that we have for the launch. This screen right here actually is a good picture of our aircraft surveillance that we do. So, there are hazard areas on this screen and we’re watching.
BLAIR: Are those airplanes now that are moving?
SARAH: Yes. This is a real time feed of aircraft in the area.
BLAIR: Wow. Awesome. There’s no trajectory of where the rocket will go?
SARAH: Right. Currently, because we’re not in a countdown. We’re not in an actual launch operation.
BLAIR: Can we start up a countdown real quick and just see.
SARAH: It would be nice. I have to make a few phone calls.
BLAIR: Do you ever get a chance to practice doing this? It seems like it’s a pretty high-pressure job. You seem even keel but let me tell you the stress level has to be incredible.
SARAH: We do. For each mission, we have what’s called a dress rehearsal. The team gets together and we exercise the vehicle, the payload and most of the range, as we would for a real launch operation. We even do green cards. Green cards are anomalous events or surprise events that literally get handed to people on console at any location that have a situation written on them or a reaction that they need to say on the comm net to make everybody else react to that. Some of them are general that apply to the range itself, which is sort of not mission specific. For any mission, we could have a radar failure, or we could have a boat hazard area at the last minute. Those would be the green cards that would get handed to the person that would initially receive that data, and then they would pass it through the team and react.
BLAIR: You mentioned one like a radar failure. In a case like that will you ever have to make a decision to go ahead and launch even if something like that doesn’t work?
SARAH: Yeah, it depends. Before launch, we come up with a set of criteria that we make our “go,” “no go” decisions on. Those are mission specific always. It depends if only one radar fails and we have our backup radars up. We still maybe operating within our criteria and we may be okay. If that was the only radar we had per say, we probably would not launch.
BLAIR: Got you.
SARAH: We just follow that set of criteria ahead of time that helps to minimize the stress and surprises on launch day when we have that plan in place. We can just follow that.
BLAIR: Can I possibly sponsor a green card from NASA EDGE? Like come up with an anomaly that we could throw into the mix on one of these dress rehearsals.
SARAH: Sure. They would be completely unbiased. Those are the best kinds.[Laughing]