Saturday, February 13, 2010

ISS Payload Operations


If you're a NASA TV addict like me, you see plenty of footage of ISS Mission Control, and when an STS mission is in the air, we get plenty more of Shuttle Control -- both located in Houston, Texas.

Pity we don't get more footage from the ISS Payload Operations Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center, because they run some very crucial activities! Also, unknown to most, they serve as Houston's BACKUP in the event of an emergency. During Hurricane Ike, when Johnson Space Center was evacuated and suffered both storm and ensuing flood damages, operations were turned over to Marshall until Johnson was able to resume.

ISS Payload Operations at NASA Marshall
As it is known locally, the "POC" plans all scientific activities aboard the space station. It’s a 24x7 affair, manned by three rotating shifts who have the unenviably challenging job of planning and coordinating schedules of tasks both in space and on the ground.

The Payload Communications Manager ("PAYCOM") goes by call-sign "Huntsville" and is the prime communicator with the ISS crew and researchers all over the Earth on payload matters.

Want to send some butterflies to the ISS and see how they behave? The POC would plan time for your experiment, manage all tasks necessary for the payload to be flown to the station, find a place for it among the many (packed!) science racks, decide how and when it is monitored, and troubleshoot any problems or changes to its schedule while in flight.

After tracking all progress or upon conclusion, they also control data storage back to the researchers who initiated it... all this under extreme time constraints, available-space constraints, power limits, established safety requirements and strict payload regulations.

International Space Station Payload Operations
For all the people who think NASA wastes time or money, I encourage you to have an in-depth look at the list of scientific experiments conducted on the ISS over the years. Take a deep breath (or maybe go mix a martini) before you click on the link, because it will absolutely boggle your mind.

Covering everything from behavioral studies to biotechnology to environmental effects, there is no such thing as a lackadaisical moment for POC personnel – not with what it costs to put these payloads and crews into orbit.

It’s not an easy place to find! Had Craig and Heather not been guiding me about, I’m sure I never would have found anything in that hamster maze... and even after being there, I’m not sure I could find it again! So I must thank them again for making sure I didn’t miss any of the cool facilities at Marshall!

Skylab Payload Operations Control
As an added bonus, the Skylab control from the 1970s is nearby, and has been kept largely intact over the years. I remember peering inside and exclaiming, "Wow... I'm old. I remember using some of those types of computers!"