13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of NASA Mission Controllers
Films such as Apollo 13, Armageddon, and The Martian depict NASA’s Mission Control Center as a place of high stress and nail-biting suspense. But what’s it really like to work there? We got the inside scoop from several current or former flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas—NASA’s primary Mission Control Center for human spaceflight. (You might know it by its radio call sign “Houston.”) There, flight controllers are responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts and spacecraft, monitoring the International Space Station (ISS), and providing constant operational support from the ground.
1. “FLIGHT CONTROLLER” IS A GENERAL TERM.
There are a variety of roles that are essential to making Mission Control run smoothly, and “flight controller” is an umbrella term that encompasses many of them. For each mission, a group of engineers, scientists, managers, technicians, biomedical engineers, quality control inspectors, and designers all work together to ensure the safety of astronauts and spacecraft. According to Ben Honey, a NASA ADCO (Attitude Determination and Control Officer) flight controller, team sizes vary from a skeleton crew—the minimum is six people—to more than a dozen individuals.
“A busy day (say, a vehicle docking or spacewalk) could have a full team of at least a dozen people in the front room and many more in support rooms,” Honey tells mental_floss. A skeleton crew, meanwhile, consists of six roles: Flight Director, Ground Control, ETHOS (Environmental Control Systems), SPARTAN (Power Systems), ADCO (Navigation Systems), and CRONUS (Data and Communications Systems), Honey says. But no matter how many people work in Mission Control at any given time, the ultimate responsibility is in the hands of the flight director, who manages the team of flight controllers.
2. THEY’RE YOUNG.
According to NASA Vehicle Systems Engineer Holly Griffith, who worked as a flight controller for the Space Shuttle Electrical Power System at the Johnson Space Center from 2004 until 2012, people are often surprised to learn how young most flight controllers are. “I was 25 when I started, and the majority of my colleagues were similar ages,” she tells mental_floss. Even during Apollo 11—the 1969 NASA mission that landed the first two humans on the moon—the average age in the control room was just 28 years old.
That youth can be a big asset when it comes to working the long hours required of the job. As Griffith points out, young flight controllers who lack the added responsibilities of marriage and children are often more willing (and able) to work nights, weekends, and holidays. (It’s not so much that NASA specifically recruits young people for the job, interviewees say, as that young people are more likely to apply.)
3. GETTING THEIR JOB IS NO EASY FEAT.
Flight controllers at NASA come from a variety of educational backgrounds, but most earn degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics). Some flight controllers earn additional degrees in business or communications, which may help prepare them for the job’s high level of cooperation and demanding team management responsibilities. After completing their education, grads who want to work in Mission Control may apply to a NASA internship or work for a NASA contractor that provides personnel to NASA.
Once they get their foot in the door at NASA, aspiring flight controllers must complete up to a year of rigorous training. Depending on the team they want to join, most new hires take classes, get tested on what they’ve learned, and take part in simulations that help them practice how they would respond to surprises such as malfunctioning equipment, a debris strike, depressurization, or a fire. They’re also observed by supervisors while they learn to carry out tasks. The end result of the training process is certification, which is highly individualized depending on which role a flight controller is aiming toward. Once certified, the flight controller is responsible for carrying out their job duties without a supervisor watching over them.
4. COMMUNICATION SKILLS CAN MAKE OR BREAK THEM.
Forget the stereotype of a nerdy scientist who doesn’t speak or interact well with others. While flight controllers are first and foremost engineers, responsible for applying an enormous amount of technical knowledge, good communication skills are equally important.
“For a job in engineering, communication was just as much a part of the job as technical knowledge,” Griffith explains. “We were set up in the room by our systems, and if something in the power system fails that cuts power to a fan in the environmental system, I may need to be able to explain higher-up electrical concepts to the environmental person and they will need to tell me why it's important that we get the fan back ASAP.” The ability to communicate accurately and succinctly with colleagues, especially under pressure if a major failure occurs, is vital. “Much of our training is spent on good communication and our communication skills are a huge part of our feedback and could even fail you in the certification flow if not good enough,” Griffith says.
5. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME DOING PAPERWORK.
“Much of a flight controller’s job is paperwork and the integration and coordination that go along with that paperwork,” NASA flight controller Robert Frost writes on Quora. When Space Shuttle missions were still running (the Shuttle retired in 2011), that paperwork could start years before a mission. Even today, tiny changes in the technology or software used aboard the ISS can involve multiple international stakeholders, all of whom need to be kept informed via paperwork.
Once a mission begins, flight controllers are also "sitting console”—being perched at a large desk with multiple monitors receiving data from equipment in space. Their job is to continuously monitor that data, and make sure each piece of equipment is working as it should be. That way, Mission Control on the ground stays connected to what’s going on up above.
Even then, "we're always doing paperwork—we're constantly keeping a log," Griffith says. "We have a Word template that logs MET (Mission Elapsed Time) and GMT of every call/action from/to the crew, other flight controllers, the Flight Director, etc. We log everything and the other team reads this during handovers."
6. THEY DON’T GET MUCH VITAMIN D.
Because the ISS is a 24/7/365 operation, Mission Controllers are used to working in a dark room, seeing only the artificial light emitted by their monitors. “Most of us have engineering degrees so are already used to working nights during college or in labs doing research, so this part [of the job] doesn’t really take much adjustment,” Honey says.
But while they might miss seeing sunlight stream through the windows, Mission Controllers do have ways to get some Vitamin D. “We don't have to sit inside Mission Control for our nine hour shift without leaving," explains Honey. "On most shifts (but not all), there are times we can take a break, and I will often go for a short walk outside to get some sun if it is a day shift.”
7. BAD WEATHER IS ONE OF THEIR BIGGEST CHALLENGES.
If a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes Houston and shuts down power to Mission Control, NASA has a backup control center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. According to ISS flight controller Pat Patterson, who works at Marshall but is part of the Mission Control team in Houston, one of their greatest challenges is dealing with weather. “Since our control room operates around the clock, 365 days a year, and we are in Alabama, even snow and ice can result in issues getting to and from work,” she reveals in a Reddit AMA. “When hurricanes shut down Mission Control at JSC in Houston, key flight controllers came here to use a backup control room.” And if that backup center in Huntsville loses power or undergoes major maintenance, flight controllers have yet another backup location in Huntsville they can head to. “It’s small and only has enough space for a bare-bones team, but it works,” Mason Hall, another ISS flight controller, writes on Reddit.
8. COFFEE AND SNACKS KEEP THEM GOING.
With limited breaks and long shifts, people who work in Mission Control turn to caffeine and snacks to help them stay alert. “As with any 24/7 ops facility, food and coffee are a big part of what keeps us going,” Honey says. “People often bring in lots of goodies for big events. Sometimes we will have a special cake for a crew’s undocking day, for example. But we also just like to stock snacks at the consoles to get us through the night shifts.”
9. THEY’RE INTIMATELY ACQUAINTED WITH ACRONYMS.
To work in MCC at NASA, you’ve got to be good with acronyms. Flight controllers speak (and think) in abbreviations, such as FDO (Flight Dynamics Officer), EECOM (Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager), PDRS (Payload Deploy Retrieval System), and MMACS (Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm, and Crew Systems). Flight controllers even have acronyms on their consoles, which describe the function they’re associated with (and sometimes the call signs by which they're known).
Do all the acronyms ever confuse laypeople? As Hall says: “I have a friend who misreads my ‘ISS’ tweets as ‘ISIS’ every now and then, and it makes me laugh!”
10. GENDER IS LESS OF AN ISSUE THAN IT ONCE WAS.
All flight controllers at NASA were male until 1972, and all flight directors were male until 1991. But today NASA makes an effort to be diverse. According to Griffith, who has had four female managers, gender was fairly mixed during her time at mission control. “I feel like I’ve been so lucky at NASA—at one point our group was 50/50 men/women.”
“Could we be doing better?" she asks. "Yes, but that brings up another question—overall fewer women tend to go into things like mechanical engineering (in the U.S.). When I graduated women were 20% of engineering grads … that number isn’t much different now.”
11. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE MOVIES THAT DEPICT THEM.
Mission Controllers are divided about movies that depict them and their colleagues, arguing that some films are accurate in their portrayals while others are laughably inaccurate. “Honestly it depends. The Martian was fantastic and Andy Weir did an amazing job researching before he wrote the book. Apollo 13 was also great,” Griffith says.
Her take on Armageddon? “Nah. I mean I liked the film but if what you’re going for is realism I wouldn’t pick that one,” she says.
12. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN CREED.
Given the huge responsibilities they shoulder, flight controllers take their job seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they have their own creed, which is posted in Mission Control. Besides pledging to strive for discipline, teamwork, and toughness, the flight controller’s creed acknowledges the privilege (and burden) of holding people’s lives in their hands; they pledge “To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.”
13. THEY MARVEL AT HOW INCREDIBLE THEIR JOB IS.
Working for NASA is a normal job with coworkers, bosses, and a paycheck, but the surreal nature of supporting space missions does hit flight controllers from time to time. Besides helping to advance our understanding of science, technology, and space exploration, flight controllers have the privilege of communicating with humans who live and work approximately 250 miles above the surface of Earth.
“Sometimes, it’s really crazy to think about what we actually do for a living,” Hall writes. “Sometimes we go outside and watch the ISS fly over at dusk. We see it soar across the evening sky like a really bright star, and then we can go inside our control center and watch live video from inside that bright point of light and see the astronauts floating around and performing science experiments. It really blows your mind!”