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Season 5, Episode 21: In Case of Space Station Emergency

Season 5Episode 21Feb 18, 2022

In space, we have to expect the unexpected. Sunny Panjwani of NASA’s Johnson Space Center shares how he got thrown into an emergency situation on his first day as a flight controller. His team makes sure that astronauts have a safe environment on board the International Space Station.

Gravity Assist: Season 5 Trailer – What’s Your Gravity Assist?

Sunny Panjwani is a flight controller at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The International Space Station

In space, we have to expect the unexpected. Sunny Panjwani of NASA’s Johnson Space Center shares how he got thrown into an emergency situation on his first day as a flight controller. His team makes sure that astronauts have a safe environment on board the International Space Station. Learn how he got to NASA and how he handles high-pressure circumstances in and out of Mission Control.

Jim Green: For more than 20 years, the International Space Station has been in space with astronauts safely on board.

Jim Green: But what happens if something goes wrong?

Sunny Panjwani:In the training process, as a flight controller, you will go through some pretty rigorous simulations.

Sunny Panjwani:It was just surreal being there my first day and feeling like I was still stuck in a simulation.

Jim Green: Hi, I’m Jim Green. And this Gravity Assist, NASA’s interplanetary talk show. We’re going to explore the inside workings of NASA and meet fascinating people who make space missions happen.

Jim Green:I’m here with Sunny Panjwani. And he is a flight controller for the International Space Station based out of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Welcome, Sunny, to Gravity Assist.

Sunny Panjwani:Hey, Jim, thanks. It’s great to be here. And I have to say you just made a cool job sound even cooler. So thank you for, for doing it like that.

Jim Green:Oh, my pleasure. I mean, wow, running the entire space station with flight controllers on the ground. It sounds so complicated. But before we talk about that, I really want to know how you got to NASA. And what made you so interested in space?

Sunny Panjwani:Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it always starts off for us, you know, being kids and being interested in something from a young age. And for me, it was always the night sky. That was always like my best friend, it was always that silent observer, that listener for me when I was alone.

Sunny Panjwani:And so I became, you know, kind of obsessed with the night sky and all the things I heard about astronauts doing and people going up there to the Moon and things like that. And, you know, being a kid, I had the whole “shoot for the stars” thing, I took that kind of realistically, and I wanted to be an astronaut, but I also wanted to be a doctor. So I wanted to be a doctor-astronaut. And, you know, someone had told me that some astronauts are doctors, so I believe that and my parents told me, “Hey, you know, shoot a little bit, a little bit lower, but you know, just keep dreaming.” And I said, “Okay, sure.” And I grew up and I thought, Okay, I will be a doctor that works with astronauts. So you know, we also have those at the center called flight surgeons.

Sunny Panjwani:Now, I stayed on that path for a while, you know, through middle school, in high school, like a lot of people, we took medical classes, and I certified to be an EMT. For me, what really changed was: there was a loss in my family when I entered college. My father was, was shot and killed when I was younger.

Jim Green:Oh, I’m so sorry.

Sunny Panjwani:Thank you, I appreciate that. And he was shot and killed at his workplace very suddenly. And that that kind of threw me off my core, so veered off, and I lost hope in myself. And, you know, when that happened, just as for a lot of people, when things like that happen, I just I stopped and just threw everything off to the side and thought, “Hey, I can’t chase my dream anymore. I can’t keep going in that direction.”

Sunny Panjwani:So I chose something safer. And I’ll tell you what I did. I, I started off as a biology major in college that first year, and then after losing my dad, I, the next week, I switched over to accounting, because I thought, “hey, I need a job that puts some, some money on the table.” And Jim, we just met like five minutes ago, and I will tell you, I’m never gonna be that friend that you can call to help with your taxes. (laughs)

Jim Green: (laughs)

Sunny Panjwani: I’m not, I’m not that guy.

Sunny Panjwani:And it was never my love and passion, but I tried staying with it. And you know, people always told me, Sunny, do what gets you through the day, you know, just go and do a degree that will get you a job, do what gets you through the day. And they said, you know, if you’d like biology, if you like science, keep that in, you know, in your back pocket as a minor. So that’s exactly what I did. I was the one business major I knew that had a science minor. And, you know, it took a while for me to understand that I didn’t want to do what got me through the day, I wanted to chase after what made me want to stay up at night. And that’s what so many of us here at NASA do we chase what makes us want to stay up. And so long story short, you know, it took some time, but I think I ended up in the right place.

Jim Green:That’s fantastic. I’m really glad that you did. And I hear that you work in the environmental systems branch of the space station. What does that involve?

Sunny Panjwani:So you know, the environmental and thermal operating systems is a mouthful. So you’ll hear me say ETHOS, and that’s what the acronym is for that whole thing. So the big part of that, again, like you said, is the Environmental Systems part. So what is that? What does that mean? So let’s kind of take it a step back. What do humans need to survive in space? Well, first, you need shelter. So we have the ISS, the actual shell, but you got to pressurize it, you have to have oxygen, you’ve got to have nitrogen, just like we do here on Earth. And we got to keep those pressures pretty similar to what we have here on Earth. Now, you know, Jim, what’s your favorite space movie? Just a personal question.

Jim Green:Oh, “The Martian,” of course.

Sunny Panjwani:Okay. “The Martian,” you know, that’s, that’s a that’s a good one. I think mine has to be Apollo 13. And, okay, Apollo 13. A lot of people can think back and remember the scene where they have to fix their CO2 [carbon dioxide] scrubber because they have a lot of CO2 building up. That’s another thing we conquer here at ethos. We’re monitoring the CO2 levels, monitoring things like toxins in the air and making sure we’re scrubbing that. And then one of the biggest things we do is recycling. And when I say recycling, I’m talking about regenerative life support.

Sunny Panjwani:So think about, you know, crew needs water to drink, crew needs oxygen to breathe. So we could keep sending oxygen up there. And we could keep sending water up there. But sending things to space is pretty expensive. So we’ve learned that we can generate water on the space station through byproducts from the crew. So crew members generate three main waste products that I can think of. So, urine is one, you’ve got sweat whenever they’re working out and just moving about the cabin through their work day. And then even when they breathe out, the moisture, the humidity and their breath as they exhale that, we collect all of those, we purify them, and we produce potable drinking water — water, that’s honestly a lot cleaner than what comes out of my sink.

Sunny Panjwani:So it sounds gross. But I promise I promise it’s not that bad. It’s, it’s very clean water.

Sunny Panjwani:So now that we have this water, we can take that and we can run a current through it — an electrical current —and produce oxygen by splitting the water in half. So the urine, the sweat, the condensate, all of this is being turned into drinkable water and breathable air throughout the day. And that’s such an important part of what we do, because that keeps the crew alive and healthy. It keeps costs down. And it makes exploring past, you know, the moon, past Mars one day, hopefully, it makes those things possible.

Jim Green:Yeah, as you say, all that activity is what we would call sustainability. You know, a self-contained environment, you, you manage your waste, minimize that, and use those resources over and over again.

Sunny Panjwani:And I think going back to your, your movie when you said “The Martian,” I mean, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Right. He’s taking his way and making potatoes out of it. And before I have us move on, Jim, I just wanted to mention, the biggest thing we do in ETHOS that I neglected to mention the most important thing, the part of life support that we care about the most is preserving life. So when there’s an emergency on the space station, think about a fire, for example, or a rapid depressurization. So let’s say you’re in an airplane and somebody pokes a hole in the side of it, that air rushing out. That’s one of the worst-case scenarios on the space station or a toxic atmosphere. Say there’s a gas leak on the space station. When there’s an emergency like that, this is the team that leads the crew and leads the rest of the flight control team through that scenario.

Jim Green: Well, in your role, do you often sit at a console and observe what’s happening with the incoming data?

Spacewalker Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency)

Sunny Panjwani:Yeah, and I love these questions, because you gave me a chance to go back to again, my favorite movie. So if you if you think back to Apollo 13, you think back to the the guys in the white shirts and the black ties sitting at consoles, you know, a console is a shorthand for that desk that’s surrounded by a bunch of computer screens, and papers, documents everywhere. And that’s kind of where we sit day to day when we’re on console. Now a lot of work happens in the office, you can say most of the work happens in the office where we have people supporting the people sitting on console that week. But for ETHOS, we are what’s called a core console. So we are there 24/7/365. There’s always one person at least on console, monitoring tons of data coming down from all this hardware for you, know, generating the water, generating the oxygen, monitoring all these various systems that we have. So there’s always somebody plugged in.

Jim Green:So out of your of your group how many are there? And then do you take turns sitting behind the console?

Sunny Panjwani:Yeah, that’s a good question. So in our group, we have a few dozen certified flight controllers. And you know, I know that sounds like a lot. But when you think about someone always having to be there, 24/7/365, three shifts a day, it adds up. And it takes a toll on the group. So we have enough to be sustainable, but we’re always trying to select more people to become flight controllers and to help plan, train, and fly missions.

Jim Green:Well, what’s your day to day activity like? And then what do you do in the office when you’re not on console?

Sunny Panjwani:So the day-to-day, let’s say I’m walking into console. And actually, that’s a great question, because I’m walking into console today after we’re done. So you know, we have schedules that are planned out based on people’s availability, it’s just like any other job, you know, that’s the normal part of it. The not=normal part is you’re walking into Mission Control. So you’re walking past and big doors, you’re walking up to the console itself, setting up all your data, your plots, and preparing for the day. And when you’re on console, you know, one, you’re monitoring all this data coming down. But then you’re also planning ahead days ahead, weeks ahead, looking at hey, what’s coming three days from now, what’s coming six days from now, what’s coming a month from now?

Sunny Panjwani:So in the office, when you’re not working console, you might be a subject matter expert on some specific piece of hardware for the office. So let’s say you’re really into that oxygen generator, you know a lot about it. So if there’s some kind of new hardware that’s flying up that associates with that, that piece of hardware, you might be working with the teams to make sure that all those things are integrated correctly. So really, it’s it’s a big team effort. And I like to say, none of us is there trying to be the world’s best flight controller, we’re showing up every day trying to be the world’s best flight control team. And that’s really what we focus on is the teamwork.

Jim Green: Well, you must prepare for emergency. How are you trained, then, during those times you’re not on console? Do you go into a simulator or are you actually walking around something that looks like one of the modules that is attached to Space Station?

Sunny Panjwani:So in the training process, as a flight controller, you will go through some pretty rigorous simulations. So, one, you have all that technical learning, you have to do the book homework, and then you have the actual practice and gaining experience. So you’ll walk into a simulator, which is, it’s really just a room, it looks just like a flight control room. You’re surrounded by all your monitors, all your data is there, your procedures and such. And the data flowing down through all these screens is simulated data based on the software and the hardware you would really have on the space station. So you’re getting the same data, except, you know, when you show up for this simulation, it’s going to be one of the worst days of your life on console. Because those are the days, those are the days that they really want to prepare you for, and test you, and test you, and break down little bitty things.

Sunny Panjwani:You know, you might have an eight hour simulation, and it was a great sim, but that one part of the sim, that one time you kind of messed up. And that’s what they’re going to go into at the end of the day, because that’s where you can make the improvement. So you know, there’s that famous NASA quote that goes, “failure is not an option.” And you know, that might be a great quote, but I would submit that for life and for learning, failure is a requirement. Failure is a prerequisite to success, you know. If we don’t fail, if we don’t falter, we will never get close to breaking our limits, we won’t even get close to our limits. So failure is a big part of the training system.

Jim Green:What kind of emergencies do occur on the ISS?

Sunny Panjwani:My first day on console was last year when I certified to be a back-room flight controller.

Sunny Panjwani:So it was my first day being a co-pilot, basically. And this was the day that the Russian Space Agency was bringing up a vehicle, I’m gonna butcher the name, it’s called Nauka, or MLM. And it was an expansion to their space station, their side of the space station.

Sunny Panjwani:Now, sometime after the ship docked about an hour, maybe two hours, all of a sudden, we get a message on the board. And it says loss of attitude control. So attitude control, meaning the positioning of the space station. So that space station was tilting away from its normal position, and we hadn’t commanded it to do so, we hadn’t told to do so. And then we look up at the screen at these external cameras, and I can see all this ice and debris and dust coming off of the thruster that’s now, you know, docked to the space station. So for people who don’t kind of, who can’t picture this, I want you to imagine going down a highway and I’m in a truck and your car is hitched to my truck, and we’re driving down the highway just fine. And all of a sudden you start slamming on the pedal. And now we’re veering off in a different direction. And that’s exactly what started happening.

Sunny Panjwani:Now the space station did something like one and a half backflips with seven crew inside of it. And it wasn’t a rapid spin. But it was a roll. And during that time, my pilot that day was Christopher Brown, just a great flight controller, and he was there to help me and we both talked about, you know, what if the crew has to do an emergency undock. What if there is a rupture in the cabin, what are we looking for? And the data isn’t there right now because the space station has veered off of its axis.

Sunny Panjwani:So we’re not seeing all this data come down because it’s pointed the wrong way. But when it comes back around, we’ll get some data. So we’re thinking, Okay, let’s talk about all the possibilities. What are we looking for? What’s the worst case? What’s the next worst failure. And of course, we have people from the office tuned in watching this all happen. So we still had support. Now, thankfully, it did stop firing. And we did regain attitude control some time later that day. And the crew was never in any extreme danger.

Sunny Panjwani:But it was just surreal being there my first day and feeling like I was still stuck in a simulation. Snd it really taught me that our training is there, to push us to our limits again, and, and sometimes, you know, you just you’re sitting there and you can’t believe what’s happening, but you’re calm, and you’re collected, and you’re ready to work the problem.

Jim Green: Wow, that must have been an exciting day. But isn’t it also true that, at times, we know that there’s certain debris that the space station has to move away from? Are those handled very routinely? Or do you call them an emergency and then and then move the station? Or what’s the what’s the procedure that is involved in those?

Sunny Panjwani: Yeah, so you’re right, we do have what we call planned debris avoidance maneuvers. And so you know, there’s a couple reasons why you would have to boost or change the space station’s height from the Earth. And one of those is debris. So the United States and other countries are always tracking small pieces of debris in orbit, small and large, of course. And so once it’s determined that we’re in the path of a piece of debris, we do boost out of the orbit that’s going to cause us to collide with it.

Sunny Panjwani: And another reason that a lot of people don’t think of is: the ISS is only about 250 miles above the planet. And that’s pretty far up. But there’s still a little bit of drag on the space station. So picture, you know, you got your your car on the highway, you bring the window down, and you’re driving kind of slow, and you put your arm out, you got that drag against your arm pulling you back a little bit. That’s what’s happening to the space station as it’s orbiting the Earth and it’s falling a little bit because it’s slowing down. It’s falling down a little bit. And so we boost the space station regularly to keep it above that, that area where it’s gonna fall too low and then come back down into the Earth.

Jim Green: Well, it sounds like you’re prepared for a really high pressured situation, since you were just, you know, thrown right into the mixing bowl on your very first, first day as a as your co-pilot controller. Are these things really, that you learned — can you apply them to your own life?

Sunny Panjwani:Yeah, and you know, preparing for high stress situations, I learned quickly after I became an EMT after high school and work that job for a little bit. I learned that I need those high-pressure situations a lot of us do because being in a high-pressure environment means that your performance your actions have consequences. And sometimes we need that to drive us forward and to always pay attention to things. So I learned that that’s a great fit for me in a job and this job is perfect for that.

Sunny Panjwani:So your question on taking something away, I would have to say, the one thing that I really take away is, is to always play something out to the very end, it’s not over until it’s over. And especially when the deck is stacked against you. You know that that whole failure is not an option thing. Just keep that in your mind sometimes and keep going, things are gonna keep getting thrown at you, life is gonna put things in your way. But you have to keep going until it’s the end, you don’t call the ball game you play until the end?

Jim Green:Well, you know, it really sounds like there’s always something to learn. And there’s always things that could go wrong. And that every day is different. Is that Is that true? And do you really enjoy going into work looking for that next challenge?

Sunny Panjwani:Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the great parts of the job is, you know, we do have things in space that are procedural. But with it being a space environment, I wouldn’t say that things are routine. There’s always variation in things, there’s always something that could go wrong. And, of course, we’re trying to manage, you know, just basic hardware problems. But we’re also trying to make sure that we’re not wasting the crew’s time. The crew is up there for six months, usually, and their time is very precious. So we’re making sure that they have all all that they need to perform science throughout the day, and that things aren’t, you know, giving them hiccups throughout the day and holding them up in places. So we’re always just trying to make sure we’re in sync with the crew on those things.

Jim Green:Well, I’d be willing to bet most people don’t realize how many people are actually in space station at any one time, and that it changes, what’s the largest number of astronauts on orbit and in space station at a given time?

Sunny Panjwani:At a given time, you can bet that there are about seven people on the space station. Now, we’ve had more we’ve had less. But the six to seven is a the approximate crew complement for any given time. So you know, whenever that space station flies over your house, and it goes around the Earth 16 times a day, there are seven people zooming above your head. And the Space Station has been continuously inhabited for over 20 years. So we’ve always had at least a person up there and you know, more than one person up there, zipping around the earth for 20 years, which is incredible

Jim Green:Yeah.

Sunny Panjwani:and just a monumental achievement by all the partners.

Jim Green:Yeah, indeed, very much. So we know NASA is planning to send astronauts to the moon through the Artemis program, with a view of someday making it to Mars. Are you involved in any of those activities?

Sunny Panjwani:Well, okay, so I’m a newer flight controller. So I’m not directly involved in the ETHOS group when it comes to the Artemis program. And I love I would love to be in I hope to be one day. But let me let me answer that maybe an analogous way. So if if you think about the ISS as a testbed for taking us further, the ISS is kind of like our training field, right. This is where we plan train and fly to currently, and we’re going to the ISS so we can learn about how we can go farther. So we’ve been to the Moon before, that’s a ball game that we’ve won before. And we’re trying to make the Moon the next practice field. And once that’s our practice field, and we get good at that, then hopefully we can go to Mars, and that’s the Superbowl right? So you know, everything we do day to day, is trying to help us get to that Super Bowl and make that a reality.

Jim Green33:42

Well, of course, what NASA is doing over the next several years is building an infrastructure at the Moon. And the big infrastructure is called the Gateway.

Sunny Panjwani:That’s right.

Jim Green:Of course, astronauts will be in the Gateway. And they’ll be performing different types of experiments and all kinds of things in addition to living in the Gateway. And it’s from the Gateway that they’ll land on the surface of the moon, and then go back to the Gateway. And so you know, controllers are going to be involved in that perhaps that will be your next big step.

Sunny Panjwani:I can only hope so. That sounds incredible.

Jim Green:Yeah, it sounds like fun to me too. Well, what advice would you offer a young person who wants to go into a job like yours?

Sunny Panjwani:Oh, man, I get this one so often. And I I’m never prepared for the answer because I feel like a young guy who just kind of lucked out being you know, here and living my dream day to day. I would say the one thing to take away is serendipity. And I mean, serendipity surrounds us day to day, just chance and you know, sometimes we think about things just falling into place. I would argue that, you know, you have to be the right person in the right place at the right time. And of course for the right thing.

Sunny Panjwani:The one thing that’s always going to be in your control is being the right person. So do what it takes to be prepared when that opportunity shows up at your doorstep. So you know, get the degree that you need to make sure you have the experience that would help you be a good team member learn how to communicate professionally, things like that. So become the right person. And when the right place and the right time are there, you’ll be the right person for those.

Jim Green:Yeah, that sounds like a good set of advice. Well, Sunny, I always like to ask my guests to tell me, what was the event or person place or thing that got them so excited about being the engineer and the flight controller they are today. And I call that event a gravity assist. So Sunny, what was your gravity assist?

Sunny Panjwani:I love that name. Jim, I knew you were going to ask you this question, because I’ve heard your podcast, which by the way, love the podcast.

Jim Green:Thank you.

Sunny Panjwani:And so I kind of thought about this question. And the best answer I can give is that my gravity assist has been my family, both the one that I was born into, and the one that I’ve been so lucky to cultivate through my life. You know, I told you, I changed my major to accounting, and then I switched back to biology. You know, I changed that back to biology three and a half years into college, I changed back to biology because I couldn’t sleep at night, and I wanted to chase what kept me up. And before that, you know, I was like, well, if I go back to biology, I don’t know what I can do with that degree, because medical school is still too expensive. And I didn’t want to take the time away from my family after losing my father, and I would have to go home, once I switched my degree back to bio. And my mom would be there and she would ask me at night, you know, I’d come home from college, on those weekends. And she’d say, “Hey, so how are things going?” And then she would eventually ask, you know, “So do you know what you want to do yet?” And it would break my heart because I would have to look at her and say, “No, I, I still don’t know what I want to do. “

Sunny Panjwani:And, you know, to her credit, being the person she is She took my hand every time and she said, you’ll find it. You just keep going, you know, your dad and I are with you, and you’ll find it. And before that when I was last that I was working, you know, a hotel job while I was in community college, before I’d even gone to a major university, I met a person named Sherry, who’s part of my family now. And she was just a guest who was checking into the hotel during this big NASA conference. And, you know, I was a business major at the time. So I was very geeked out talking to all these people. And she struck a conversation up with me that week.

Sunny Panjwani:And she took an interest in me and she extended her hand and you know, a person she’d never known, never owed anything to, and told me to keep in contact. And she said, you know, don’t give up on your dream so soon. You deserve to chase your dreams. And even when I showed up at NASA as an intern, after she convinced me to apply, and after I showed up as an intern, the team that I was working with saw that I had this crippling imposter syndrome that you know, a lot of us carry here at NASA. Working in one of the greatest places to be in the world kind of comes with that imposter syndrome sometimes, and they saw that I had that. And my mentors, Brian and David, they, they took my hand, a kid who had no research experience, who had no background for his degree, and they said, “We trust you, you know, keep pushing.” And they pushed me forward. And so my family has been my gravity assist. And every day I walk into work, and I see all those partner flags for the International Space Station, and I see that mission control patch, and the flight ops patch, I think of all those people, and without all those people, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Jim Green:Well, that’s fantastic, Sunny, I really appreciate having the time talking to you about controlling Space Station. And I’m really delighted that you’re behind the console. I would feel comfortable if I was an astronaut living in working on Space Station, and then having you work with me when I go to the Gateway and then to the Moon. All right? Let’s do that.

Sunny Panjwani:Yeah. Well, I hope I hope we can send you there, Jim.

Jim Green:Well, join me next time as we continue our journey to look under the hood at NASA and see what we do and how we do it. I’m Jim Green, and this is your Gravity Assist.


Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio engineer: Manny Cooper