Mark Shuttleworth - January 28, 2002: Something old, something new - Getting invited to Houston for ISS training is a major breakthrough for
everybody involved. It shows just how far things have come with NASA. I
have to hand it to these guys - they have turned the situation around
dramatically from where everyone was a year ago.
We arrived in Houston on Saturday afternoon, very jetlagged indeed.
Sixteen hours of flying and a time change of nine hours pretty much
wiped out the crew. The apartments that Star City maintains here are
super, five minutes from Johnson Space Center and very comfy. Yuri and I
are staying together, Roberto has a house here since he was all set to
move here before being assigned to the Soyuz flight.
There are lots of folks here from Russia. Several ISS crews are in
training, together with their doctors, engineers and logistical support.
Our crew and backup are another six. So of course we had to have a
cosmonaut party on Saturday night which involved large amounts of
Russian food and vodka. I think we all arrived home around 4am on
Sunday, and slept late. Sunday, as a result, was very easy going. We did
some shopping - beer, bread and music, everything necessary for bachelor
life on assignment - and passed out early.
Monday started off with the weekly NASA astronauts meeting. We were
presented to the NASA astronaut corps as the next Soyuz crew. It was
great to see some familliar faces there - Bill McArthur (former NASA DOR
at Star City) in particular. And I met Andy Thomas and Debbie Brown, who
took the trouble to come to SA to help with our education program, for
the first time. Also, it was announced that Gennady and Oleg, our Soyuz
backup crew, together with Mike Finke our host in Houston, would be the
prime crew for Station increment 9.
The purpose of our training here is basic familiarization with the US
segment of the ISS. The most important part of that is the emergency
procedures and equipment. So after a brief overview we get down to brass
tacks - fire extinguishers and oxygen masks.
The first thing I notice is the difference in the age of the equipment.
Everything here seems brand new compared to Star City. Not just in the
fact that the demo equipment is brand new, but that the DESIGN is brand
new too. In the Russian segment, most of the design work took place in
the 70's, and with very few exceptions all the components are unchanged
since then. The US segment was designed in the 90's and it shows. The
fire extinguisher looks substantially more effective than the Russian
one, and although looks can be deceiving it's comforting to see
something that looks state of the art in the critical equipment rack.
The US gas mask is very cool - press a button and the pressurized air
pushes out the straps so your head fits in neatly, let go and the straps
collapse tightly around your skull, pulling the mask to your face for a
good seal. By contrast, the Russian model just uses rubber straps. And
that seems to be the order of the day - the US equipment is more up to
date, but possibly more complex. I wonder over time which set of
equipment will prove more robust. The neat thing about the partnership
is that both sides watch and learn from each other, but try different
things. In the long run they should move faster that way than if they
each maintained separate stations.
There are lots of nice features on the US side. For example, the fire
extinguisher can be used on open flames, but also can be used to flush
an equipment rack with carbon dioxide to kill a contained fire. All the
US equipment racks have the necessary fixtures. And the oxygen masks use
bottled oxygen but can be hooked up to oxygen points in the US segment
for longer breathing support. By contrast, the Russian gas masks use
chemicals to produce oxygen, and when they are done, if you can't
breathe, you leave. But the extra features mean that it takes a lot more
training to drill the modalities of operation on the US side.
We get a tour of the facility after the emergency procedures are done.
We visited the Mission Control for ISS which was live of course, as well
as the Shuttle Mission Control which was running an integrated sim
(where the full shuttle crew sit in their sim, and the full ground
control talk through a full day's operations). We also saw the old
Houston Mission Control room where the flight directors managed the
early shuttle, Apollo and Gemini missions. This is the place where Neil
Armstrong was given the go ahead to leave the LEM and step onto the
moon, this is where they talked Apollo 13 back home safely. It's now a
national monument. Incredible to think they did that without any modern
computers at all.
Last we sat in on an ISS / shuttle EVA simulation, where we listened to
the conversation between the EVA crew (who are in a huge swimming pool,
simulating the neutral boyancy of weightlessness) and the shuttle crew,
and the ISS crew, and both ground control centers. There are a huge
number of people involved in an operation like that, tracking every
parameter you can imagine. The flight director and capcom, who are at
the centre of this web of communication, have to listen and monitor all
those conversations and instruct the crews as to their precise movements
and actions as the situation unfolds. Many of these folks are astronauts
themselves (traditionally, capcom or the person who actually talks to
the astronauts is always an astronaut too). Their calm coordination is
awesome. They seem able to juggle multiple threads of activity and draw
them all together as needed.