Hundreds of people work to make sure nothing goes wrong with the International Space Station. But, what happens at night, when everyone goes home?
The International Space Station.
A smaller staff continues monitoring events and systems, with work that is every bit as important as what goes on from 9 to 5.
Ed Van Cise is a flight controller for the ISS and whose job often requires him to work the night shift.
"Early on with the Space Station, we realized that you couldn't take the same approach as you did with the Space Shuttle's missions. The Shuttle flies for a couple weeks at most, but [the] ISS is up there permanently, and each crew's rotation in space lasts for months." said Van Cise. "Assigning the same folks to oversee an ISS mission would lead to extreme fatigue and burnout."
The nighttime and weekend staff was devised to be a bit different. One flight controller handles the power, thermal and life support systems. Another controller covers motion control, onboard computers and communications systems.
"It's three times the responsibility," said Van Cise, "but it works well in this situation."
What do these flight controllers do on their shifts? They monitor systems, answer astronaut's questions and check for any damage to the ISS. They don't focus too much on the interior of the Space Station, to respect the privacy of the astronauts.
While it's midnight in Houston, it's 6 a.m. on the ISS, and Mission Control in Russia is finishing up their work day. "It's prime time for everyone except us," said Van Cise, "and that makes it a lively shift, even if we're the only ones in the Houston office. It's never boring."
Getting to know the team is part of what NASA calls Space Flight Resource Management.
Flight controllers deal with whatever situations arise on their shift. They are often called on to adjust or fine tune operations on the Space Station, and therefore need to be well-versed in a wide variety of subjects.
Controllers don't always get to know the astronauts as close friends, but they're still co-workers with strong personalities. "Every crew member on [the] ISS has a unique personality, and every team in space has a certain style," Van Cise said. "Within 30 days of a new mission, you get a feel for how this group of astronauts does things, and you find yourself tailoring your approach to their style. Some are very eager to keep up conversations, and some prefer to focus more exclusively on their work."
The people working overnight stay awake by working on "sleep shifting." Controllers gradually change the times they go to bed and wake up. They continue the same routine of eating breakfast after getting up, even if it is 8 p.m. This method allows controllers to safely and smartly shift their working and sleeping schedules.
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