We all know the first words spoken on the surface of the Moon. But the response from mission control is just as memorable: “Roger, Tranquility,” a relieved Charlie Duke transmits. “We copy you’re on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again.”
As the Eagle lander descended towards the lunar surface, short of fuel and with multiple alarms sounding from an overloaded guidance computer, the mission was in jeopardy. Without the calm heads, latest technology and hundreds of backroom staff in Houston, Neil Armstrong might never have made that one small step.
The can-do attitude of mission control is epitomised by the phrase attributed to Nasa flight director Gene Kranz during the Apollo 13 mission: “Failure is not an option.” Today, control rooms around the world still fulfill the same functions – communicating with astronauts, satellites, space probes and rovers; directing operations and protecting people and technology from the hostile environment of space.
But, besides the practicalities, there is also an element of theatre. And some control centres take their appearance and performance more seriously than others. Having been lucky enough to visit several mission controls around the world, I’ve put together my top five of all time.
1. Apollo control room, Houston, Texas
“To us, it takes on the aura of a church,” retired Nasa flight director Glynn Lunney tells me as we sit at his former console, looking down on the tiered rows of empty desks, blank monitors, unlit buttons and dials. Across the front of the room, giant screens display images from the Apollo era – a silent black and white slide show playing out that remarkable moment in human history.
Like Kranz, Lunney served as one of the flight directors during Apollo 13 where mission control was instrumental in saving the three astronauts’ lives. He also oversaw Apollo-Soyuz, the first joint US-Soviet Union space flight. If astronauts have the right stuff, then this man surely does too.
Lunney headed a simple chain of command that embodied clear communication and informed decision-making. “The flight director is the quarterback, if you will,” he explains, “gathering up the intelligence that is in this room and applying it to the flight.” Only then would instructions be communicated by the Capsule Communicator (CapCom) – usually an astronaut – to the crew in space.
Now preserved as a national monument, the Apollo control room represents the cutting edge of late 1960s technology. “We got to use the best new equipment the country could produce,” says Lunney, “and it worked fine by the way, it worked fine.”
The technology and know-how pioneered in this church of Apollo laid the foundations for mission control centres around the world. From Nasa’s current mission control room in Houston, to one of the most impressive ever built and the second on our list.
2. International Space Station (ISS) mission control, Moscow
The Soviet Union knew how to put on a show. From the grand marble entrance hall to the stylised mural of the world’s first star man, Yuri Gagarin, on the canteen wall, the Moscow Mission Control Centre is built to impress. Curiously, the corridors of this vast building are lined with the same gold corrugated metal sheets as the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
Built in the 1970s, the centre houses several different mission control rooms, including one for the Soyuz spacecraft and another for the Mir space station, preserved for posterity. But the most impressive is the one for the ISS.
It resembles a theatre. In the stalls, behind banks of computer monitors sit the flight controllers. Above them is a balcony where VIPs and astronaut families gather for launches. At the front, where the stage might be, a giant screen displays live images from orbit.
Having worked in this room several times to provide television commentary for the launches of cosmonauts to the ISS, I have the sense that this is a place designed for spectators; where the choreography of a mission is played out for everyone to see. No surprise then that when the rocket blasts off, marking the end of the first act, everyone applauds.
3. European Space Operations Centre (Esoc), Darmstadt, Germany
Not to be outdone by the US or Russia, the European Space Agency has its own mission control centre. Only this one is for unmanned spacecraft. Esoc oversees the agency’s science missions – from orbiters around Venus and Mars, to satellites studying the Earth’s ice coverage or magnetic field.
Even though they are dealing with satellites, emotions can still run high. During launches, the main control room, a moodily-lit space with curved consoles facing the main screens, is staffed by a wide range of specialists responsible for the wellbeing of their spacecraft. However, they do not control the rocket – that is operated from the launch site. These people can only wait until after separation and the first communication from their charges.
Being in the room when that first signal is received – telling controllers that their mission has made it into orbit – is to witness a shared triumph. But when something goes wrong, as it last did with the first Cryosat mission in 2005, it is not just another day at the office but years of engineers’ and scientists’ time, effort and expertise lost. As the VIPs skulk away and the post-mortem begins, the people working on the mission have to start again from scratch.
4. Inmarsat Network Operations Centre, London
One of the most surprising control rooms is situated in a modern office building, on a busy roundabout in central London. In an arrangement reminiscent of the situation room in the cult 1960s film Dr Strangelove – or, frankly, most fictional war rooms – banks of computers are arranged in a circle around a central console. On the wall, a giant map of the world is divided into a grid of hexagonal cells. A big red button, and the war-room set would be complete.
“This is the nerve centre of Inmarsat,” explains Ruy Pinto, Chief Technology Officer of the global satellite communications company. “It shows the status of all our satellites. It’s showing how well our services are being provided, whether our customers are getting the connectivity they need.”
Inmarsat operates a constellation of 10 communications satellites, providing satellite phone and broadband services to almost the entire planet. Customers range from BBC news correspondents in war zones to ships in the middle of the Pacific. In the control centre, staffed 24 hours a day, operators make sure the network stays online.
A closer look at the main screen reveals that each hexagon has a number within it. This shows how many users there are, right now, in that particular area. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, there were even two people using Inmarsat phones in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
But the vast amount of data represented on the screen isn’t the controllers’ only source of information. “We have a TV with the BBC news channel,” explains Pinto, “because if there is an event somewhere in the world – a natural disaster or earthquake or so on – we know the [satellite] traffic will be increasing. We monitor news so we start increasing capacity in that part of the world.”
5. Kepler Mission Operations Control Room, Boulder, Colorado
What the Kepler spacecraft control room at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics lacks in size, it makes up for in character. Or rather, characters: it boasts a fine collection of space-related action figures. On the shelf next to a screen showing the planet-hunting mission’s status, there are two Battlestar Galactica cylons, an alien (from Alien), Buzz Lightyear, assorted Star Trek figures, a Martian from Mars Attacks, Han Solo and Superman. The sci-fi motif is rounded off with a lava lamp.
“These are figures that our students have collected over the years,” explains Bill Possel, Director of Mission Operations, “knowing that Kepler is out there looking for planets that could be habitable.”
Although Kepler is no longer fully operational as a planet hunter, the controllers in Boulder continue to monitor the spacecraft’s status while Nasa decides what to do with it. Every few hours the ailing spacecraft still gets in touch to transmit data or receive instructions.
But what also makes this control room unique is that many of the controllers are undergraduate students. Assuming they can pass a rigorous training and testing programme. “We have to demand the best out of these students because of the responsibility they have,” says Possel. “We operate four spacecraft for Nasa worth over a billion dollars.”
With so much at stake, and despite the lack of astronauts’ lives in the balance, failure is still not an option.
In my next column, I’ll be going inside the ISS control room in Houston to discover how to fly a space station.
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