How Does the International Space Station Maintain Its Orientation?


How does the ISS keep its orientation?

Robert Frost:

Nominally, attitude control is provided by four control moment gyroscopes (CMGs). Each CMG contains a wheel that is 220 pounds (100 kg). That wheel spins at 6600 rpm, resulting in an angular momentum of 3500 ft-lb-s (4742.5 N-m-s). The basic idea is that if a torque induces a rotation on the ISS, those wheels can rotate about their gimbals to change the angular momentum of the ISS, creating a counter torque. Using CMGs is much more subtle than using thrusters, so microgravity experiments are not impacted. CMGs do have limits, though, so thrusters can assist, if needed. That assistance is needed whenever the torques are large.

To minimize thruster assists, during quiescent operations, we do a type of attitude control called momentum management (MM). This is done by maneuvering the ISS to a torque equilibrium attitude (TEA) that was analyzed by the ground a year or more in advance. This TEA is an attitude that, with meanderings of up to 15 degrees, will result in the gravity torques and atmospheric torques adding up, over an orbit, to close to zero. The CMGs then take up the slack to make that zero.

We often can't be in a TEA during critical operations. For those we need to be in an attitude hold (AH). An example of this is a docking or berthing. Attitude holds are challenging because they require a lot more work, often too much for the CMGs to handle alone, and yet firing thrusters during critical operations can be problematic.

For these operations we design a matrix for the flight rules to ensure safety. For example, we do not allow thrusters to fire whenever the end of the robotic arm is within 2 feet (0.6 m) of the vehicle. The last thing we need is for a thruster firing to shake the arm and cause it to hit the side of a module, puncturing the module. If the timeline indicates the arm will be that close, ADCO (the attitude control flight controller) will inhibit thruster assist.

Dockings and berthings can produce sudden changes in momentum. During these activities we inhibit the entire attitude control system to ensure we do not introduce forces that could damage a docking or berthing mechanism. You might notice, on NASA TV, that the vehicle can get considerably out of attitude at these times.

The attitude control computer (GNC MDM) contains the software that does all of the necessary calculations for attitude control. It takes in the actual attitude and subtracts the commanded attitude to determine the error it needs to correct. It knows the rates of the ISS. That is very sensitive, so sensitive that we can tell when the crew wake up by watching the behavior of the CMGs as the crew start to move around the vehicle. The software also needs a set of user provided parameters such as the vehicle mass properties and inertia tensors. These are located in data slots called CCDBs (controller configuration databases). We have a stockpile of these CCDBs for different vehicle configurations. For example, if a Progress cargo vehicle arrives and docks to the Russian Segment, we will have a CCDB slot designed for that configuration. When it leaves, we will swap to another one.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?


It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

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What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?


Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at For speaking events Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts