Educator Features

The People Behind the Astronauts
Mission controllers looking on a video screen at the Space Shuttle landing
The crews of the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle have inspired many people to pursue careers as astronauts. There's no disputing that these jobs are exciting, high profile positions that bring plenty of recognition. The astronauts will be the first to tell you that their jobs would be impossible without the thousands of support people who work hard to make astronauts' jobs easier.

Image to left: The Mission Control Center is a busy place whenever a crew is in space. Credit: NASA

When people think of astronaut support, they often think of Mission Control Center (MCC) at NASA's Johnson Space Center. In 1965, Mission Control Center personnel directed Gemini IV, which included the first spacewalk by an astronaut. Since that flight, the Mission Control Center has directed all of the remaining flights in the Gemini program, the Apollo program (including all of the Moon landings and the Apollo 13 rescue), the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Skylab, the Space Shuttle flights and the International Space Station.

MCC is the hub of control that oversees crucial aspects of every U.S. human space flight. Shuttle MCC workers only spend about 10 percent of their time controlling missions. Seventy-five percent of their time is spent planning and organizing, and 15 percent is devoted to their own training and education. For Space Station missions, the amount of real time spent on missions is considerably larger since the project runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

"Besides managers, Mission Control is divided into flight-control and ground-team workers," said William Foster, an MCC ground controller. The ground team gathers data from the spacecraft and launch facilities and the flight control team then analyzes that data to make decisions on how best to proceed. "As a team, we generate procedures, which are rules and conditions for response. We have generic procedures that are in place for every launch and mission-specific procedures that are tailored for a very specific situation. Every flight brings new situations, and sometimes we find we need to modify procedures that are already in place. It's always changing."

Mission controller talking to astronauts during launch
Image to right: During a mission, someone is always working at the Mission Control Center. Credit: NASA

In order to be prepared to help astronauts in any situation that could arise, MCC workers go through simulations with the astronauts and the training team. During the simulations, where workers practice responses, an unexpected event might be thrown in to surprise everyone. This anomaly, called a simfault, requires fast thinking and logical responses. "A simfault could be a malfunctioning piece of equipment or it could be a major disaster situation," said Foster. "The way the workers respond shows us how we need to prepare in case the real thing should ever happen."

If you ever see a scene from the Shuttle Mission Control Center you may notice that each console is identified with an acronym that doesn't make much sense unless you know what it stands for. Each person represented there plays a crucial role in the success of a space mission. There is a list with an explanation of each MCC acronym included later in this article.

Astronaut support doesn't stop with Mission Control. "There are thousands of people all around the country supporting the astronauts," Foster said. "Mission Control is the visible part, but it's less than 1 percent of the support team. We're just the tip of the iceberg."

But Wait, There's More!

Picture of Payload Operations Center, where ground controllers talk to the astronauts on the space station, with different countries' flags on the ceiling
Image to left: The people at the Payload Operations Center work with the crew on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The Payload Operations and Integration Center, or POIC, headquartered at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is the ongoing command post for U.S. science on board the International Space Station (ISS). U.S. research, experiments and science projects pertaining to ISS are coordinated through the POIC, which is sometimes referred to as the Mission Control of Space Station science. Because ISS is an international operation and not operated solely by NASA, the POIC also serves as NASA's base of operations for ISS scientific research. Experiments in Fluid Physics, Combustion, Biological Sciences, Human Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Space Product Development and Educational Payloads are all coordinated using the POIC as the primary interface to onboard Crew members and experiment hardware. The Payload Operations Control Center, or POCC, provides support and control to the science activities on board while the MCC supports the infrastructure (or facility operation) that allows the scientific experiments to be conducted. To alleviate any confusion, the POCC is the building that houses the POIC, with the POIC being the control room. The Mission Control Center for the ISS is located at Johnson Space Center, down the hall from the Shuttle Mission Control room.

Thousands of less-visible support staff fill the offices of the 10 NASA field centers across the United States. Many are classified as aerospace technology workers and their work falls into roles that include physical, life and social scientists; pilots; mathematicians; engineers; technicians; designers; technical communicators; radio operators; teletypists and quality control inspectors. Many of these careers require a college degree with an emphasis on mathematics and science, but there are a few positions available to anyone with general knowledge and a desire to achieve. Some of these positions include safety divers (with SCUBA certification), machine shop certified welders, vacuum chamber operators and administrative support personnel.

Mission Control Acronyms at a Glance

Flight Director
Responsible for overall Shuttle mission and payload operations
Spacecraft Communicator
Communications link between flight control and astronauts. Acronym was created when spacecraft were referred to as "capsules."
Flight Dynamics Officer
Pronounced "fido" -- plans maneuvers and monitors trajectory
Guidance Procedures Officer
Monitors onboard navigation and guidance computer software
Data Processing System (Engineer)
Monitors the data processing system of computers
A medical doctor on staff
Booster Engineer
Monitors the main engine, Solid Rocket Boosters and External Tank from pre-launch to ascent phases of missions
Payload Deploy Retrieval System
Monitors operation of the remote manipulator system
Propulsion Engineer
Monitors reaction control and orbital maneuvering propellants
Guidance, Navigation and Controls System Engineer
Monitors vehicle guidance and navigation systems
Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager
Responsible for passive and active thermal controls of the vehicle, cabin atmosphere, supply systems and fire detection
Electrical Generation and Illumination Engineer
Monitors electrical systems
Instrumentation and Communications Officer
Monitors in-flight communications and instrumentation systems
Russian Interface Operator
Liaison between U.S. and Russian Control teams
Ground Controller
Responsible for telemetry and command in the MCC and directs maintenance and operation activities
Flight Activities Officer
Plans crew activities
Payloads Officer
Coordinates activities involving the payload
Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm and Crew Systems
Monitors the Orbiter's structural and mechanical system
Public Affairs Officer
Provides commentary and mission information to the media and public
Mission Operations Directorate Manager
Link from the Flight Control Room to top NASA and JSC mission operations directorate management