RoundupReads How the Mission is Controlled: Inside NASA and Boeing Joint Operations

How the Mission is Controlled: Inside NASA and Boeing Joint Operations

by Gary Jordan | 2019-12-20

Boeing's OFT mission launched at 5:36 a.m. CT on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. Learn more about how that mission is controlled after launch below. 

With the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner (CST-100) spacecraft a new era of human spaceflight control begins at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In a sense, flight operations for the Boeing Starliner will be like it was during the space shuttle era, but with some key differences that separate the look and feel of a modern mission control.

Beginning in 2020, astronauts will use this vehicle for transportation to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, ending sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz vehicle for transportation, and returning human launch capabilities to U.S. soil once again.

Many may remember NASA’s Mission Control Center in the 2000s with International Space Station operations in Flight Control Room-1 and space shuttle operations down the hall in the White Flight Control Room. But, according to Bob Dempsey, NASA and Starliner rendezvous flight director for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT), there are several new wrinkles in how this all works.

Dempsey, a veteran of seven space station assembly missions, took time recently to discuss the similarities and differences.


Big picture – how will a Starliner mission work in mission control?

Dempsey: It’s a large, coordinated team of NASA, Boeing, and ULA (United Launch Alliance) personnel to pull off a Starliner mission. There are different control rooms for the Starliner, one for ULA’s Atlas rocket, and of course the International Space Station control room, which will be Starliner’s destination. Everyone is talking, checking, and verifying each other to make sure the mission runs smoothly. It’s very similar to when we were doing space station assembly missions for the shuttle. You had a control room for launch, a control room for the shuttle, and a control room for the space station. A lot of it is the same for Starliner, but now you’re working with private companies. You have proprietary information to deal with, and the vehicle is not owned and operated by NASA. But everyone has the same goal to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the mission, so there’s a good level of trust needed with all the teams.


Where will the different control rooms be for a Boeing mission, and how will they work together?

Dempsey: There are a number of places that will help make the mission success. Launch operations are located mostly out of Florida. The Boeing Mission Control Center is at the Kennedy Space Center looking after Starliner. The Atlas V rocket is controlled from the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with support from a team in the Vehicle Ascent and Launch Operations Room at the company’s headquarters in Denver, Colorado.

Boeing Mission Control Center (left) and Atlas Mission Control Center (right). Credit: Boeing.

All of the operations after launch will be out of Mission Control Center-CST here in Houston, as in CST-100 (Starliner). That is where all the Mission Operations team will reside. The team will work out of the White Flight Control Room and Ops Suite 1, which is adjacent to the White Flight Control Room and served as the primary control room for shuttle missions before the program was retired. Both rooms are in the Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control Center, the same building that houses the International Space Station flight control room (Flight Control Room-1) and the historic Apollo flight control room (Mission Operations Control Room-2) at the Johnson Space Center.

The Mission Support Room, where the Boeing engineering team is, actually will be split in two parts. The main contingent will be at the Boeing Mission Control Center in Florida. However, the Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) and flight software team will reside in the Blue Flight Control Room down the hall in Mission Control Center-CST.

Orion EFT-1 Flight Control Room. Credit: NASA

Of course, we have to work very closely with the International Space Station flight control team operating in Flight Control Room-1 down the hall. The Mission Operations team is responsible for safely operating the vehicle but the space station flight director ultimately is responsible for the safety of both vehicles when we get close to the space station (this is called “Integrated Operations”).

It's sort of the same for a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission, but you shuffle around the locations. You have the Dragon being controlled out of Hawthorne, California, with support rooms there as well. You have launch control at Kennedy Space Center for the Falcon 9 rocket, and of course the space station flight control room is here in Houston.


How were Boeing mission controllers trained? How do they work with NASA mission controllers?

Dempsey: The flight controllers for OFT had a unique training process. First, to minimize the amount of training required, only senior/experienced flight controllers were selected for Mission Operations. Second, the team was created early to allow the flight controllers to shape the design and learn how the systems operate from the ground up. The next phase included Part Task Trainers. In these trainers, a flight controller can operate his or her individual systems standalone so they can learn their behaviors. We then started doing mission scenario walkthroughs on console to learn how the integrated system operated. Sometimes, a planned malfunction would be inserted by the simulation team to help force the team to think through failures and impacts, but often there would be unplanned malfunctions thrown at the team due to model issues. 

Then formal simulations began. These simulations were mostly with just the Mission Operations teams, but there were several that included the United Launch Alliance (ULA) team and some that included the space station team. We work closely with the NASA flight controllers. We have participated with the space station flight controllers in designated meetings to develop plans and procedures. Most importantly, we worked with them closely to develop agreed-upon flight rules that determine how we will work together during integrated operations.

Expedition 61 flight controllers in building 30 flight control room 1 during EVA#56. Credit: NASA


Give us a brief history of Mission Control, Houston. How is the setup of Boeing mission control different?

Dempsey: NASA’s Mission Control Center began operations in 1965 with Gemini IV – the first American spacewalk mission ---- the first to be controlled from Houston. Mission Operations Control Room 2 (MOCR-2) was the first control room used for the Gemini IV mission. MOCR-1 [now called Flight Control Room 1, or FCR-1 (pronounced “ficker one”)] was also used for Apollo, Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission. There was little change regarding the technology inside those rooms during the Skylab and Apollo Soyuz programs in the mid-70’s. The systems were re-used for the Space Shuttle Program, and later were upgraded to a more modern infrastructure. International Space Station operations also used this basic organization when it came along. In recent years, all the systems were upgraded to what is called “Mission Control 21st Century (MCC21)”. International Space Station, Starliner and Orion also will use the same system essentially. The only real difference for Boeing is that the console positions are a little different – which you would expect for a dynamic vehicle that launches, docks and lands, versus something like the space station that only orbits.

Mission Operations Control Room in the MCC during the Apollo 14 transportation and docking. Credit: NASA


What does each console position do?

The following list contains positions located in Mission Control Center – CST and the Mission Support Room in Houston:


CAPCOM provides primary voice communications interface between the Starliner Flight Control Team and the crew inside Starliner. For OFT we don’t have a crew, only Rosie the Anthropomorphic Test Dummy but CAPCOM will be there training for the Crewed Flight Test mission next year.


CDH is responsible for monitoring the health and status of the CST-100 avionics systems including the onboard computers, display units, keyboards, onboard data bus, wireless networks, tablets, onboard software, data services for payloads and more. 


The roles and responsibilities for CREW SYSTEMS include developing operations products supporting crew and cargo integration and being hardware experts for flight crew equipment that deal with crew escape, human habitability, productivity, and well-being. The docking system centerline camera and digital imagery experts from Photo/ TV group will be relied upon for direct mission support and training.


EECOM is responsible for the environmental control and life support systems; monitoring and control of the active thermal control subsystems; atmosphere; suits; consumables management and reporting; cooling services for payloads and ingress/egress support. EECOM leads an integrated team response to emergencies (fire/cabin leak/toxic atmosphere/loss of cooling), and to internal and EECOM system leaks.


FDF manages the development and publication of FDF books for use by the crew and flight controllers. FDF provides real-time support for crew procedures and other FDF related activities. Duties include coordinating technical changes to procedures with Flight Directors, flight controllers, crew, and international partners. The FDF develops software requirements for procedures tools.


FAO leads the coordination and integration of the crew activities, ground activities and attitude timeline into an integrated flight plan that meets the mission requirements defined by the program. For missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the FAO also works with the ISS Operations Planner to integrate CST-100 vehicle operations and preparations into the station timeline during both the joint-mission timeframe and during quiescent operations.


FDO is responsible for pre-mission planning and real-time execution of all CST-100 trajectory operations, including launch, undocking re-entry and landing.


FLIGHT leads the flight control team both in preflight mission planning and during real-time flight operations, and is responsible for the overall execution of the mission. FLIGHT has overall operational responsibility for vehicle and payload operations, and may take any action deemed necessary for crew safety and mission success.


FOD serves as the interface between the Flight Director and senior management.

Ground Control (GC)

The GC team is responsible for the ground systems infrastructure and ground communications necessary to perform planning, training, testing, execution and evaluation of human spaceflight mission operations at the Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center for Boeing CST Mission Operations (MCC-CST).


GNC manages guidance, navigation and control hardware, and associated software during all phases of flight, including GPS, attitude controllers, the Vision-based Electro-optical Sensor Tracking Assemblies (VESTAs) and more.


INCO is responsible for monitoring the health and status of the Communications avionics including the Space-to-Ground (S/G) and Space-to-Space (S/S) systems, handheld radio communication, command encryption, audio systems and associated loose equipment functionality such as handheld microphones and headsets.


MPO is responsible for the CST-100 spacecraft electrical, mechanical, structural, and landing & recovery systems. These systems include batteries, solar arrays, power converters, interior lighting, vehicle structure, thermal protection, parachutes, airbags, crew hardware and more.


NAV is responsible for ensuring both the onboard and ground segments of the CST-100 navigation system is operating properly. NAV monitors performance of the onboard navigation hardware and software, sensor status and performance, acceptability of sensor data, navigation convergence, VESTA performance and the VESTA Ground Station. NAV supports the GNC Officer for issues related to relative and inertial navigation hardware, and for inertial navigation performance. NAV supports FDO for relative navigation performance monitoring and troubleshooting


PAO duties will be shared between NASA and Boeing. PAO coordinates news media events between the news media and the crew and/or Mission Control, and provides mission commentary to supplement and explain air-to-ground transmissions and flight control operations to the news media and the public.


POINTING is responsible the integration of all CST-100 Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) communication requirements, communication predictions and unique target lines-of-sight analysis for payloads and onboard systems. POINTING also provides attitude optimization to support unique pointing requirements, as needed.


PROFILE monitors the CST-100 relative trajectory and translational maneuvers to ensure performance within defined limits. Profile assists in monitoring the progress of crew and automated procedures related to rendezvous and proximity operations. Profile monitors vehicle compliance with applicable flight rules and provides to RNDZ a go/no-go recommendation prior to Authority to Proceed (ATP) points. Profile maintains awareness of potential vehicle automated responses to failure conditions and the resulting abort trajectories.  


PROP is responsible for all aspects of the operation and management of the Propulsion System hardware and software used during all phases of flight. This includes thruster performance and propellant usage, translation burns and attitude control maneuvers, and consumables budgeting, management and reporting.


RECOVERY is responsible for planning CST-100 recovery and executing recovery operations once the vehicle has landed.


RNDZ monitors the CST-100 during integrated operations with the space station and ensures that all space station trajectory safety requirements are satisfied. RNDZ is the primary interface to the space station Visiting Vehicle Officer (VVO). RNDZ monitors relative navigation, guidance, and trajectory performance in the proximity operations, docking, separation and flyaround phases of flight.

*Starliner Duty Officer (SDO)

For the OFT mission only*, the SDO is responsible for monitoring the CST-100 while it is docked to the space station in a quiescent configuration while the remainder of the CST-100 Flight Control Team is on-call. The SDO is responsible for leading the ground and crew response to Starliner events that result in cautions or warnings on the space station.


SURGEON directs all medical activities during the mission. SURGEON monitors crew health via telemetry, provides crew consultation, and advises the Flight Director. Since there is no crew on the OFT mission they will be training for the crew test next year.


TABLET monitors crew usage of the tablet devices and provides assistance/advice to the crew as needed.


TIMELINE assists the FAO in all aspects of preflight mission planning and coordination, and in real-time planning and replanning operations. TIMELINE generates the pre-flight timelines for the Flight Plan, monitors in-flight crew activities and coordinates activities with other flight controllers.


TRAJ tracks the spacecraft’s position in orbit to support acquisitions, plotting, external notifications, conjunction screening, and debris conjunction message evaluation and notification. TRAJ coordinates trajectory planning and events with the mission planning team, and is the primary member of the team responsible for running the CST-100 simulation to accomplish replanning and position update tasks.


WEATHER provides weather forecasts and real-time weather observations for launch and landing operations to the mission management community, Flight Director, and flight control team. WEATHER manages meteorological forecasting models and computer systems that access and assemble radar and satellite imagery, and provides mission-critical inputs to the flight director for go-for-launch and go-for-deorbit decisions.


What agreements are in place that allow Boeing to work at the Johnson Space Center?

Dempsey: There is a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement (RSAA) between Boeing and Flight Operations Directorate at the Johnson Space Center. This allows Boeing to use the facilities at the NASA center for training and operations, and to use the same contractors and NASA flight controllers for conducting a Starliner mission. This is a truly unique aspect of the Commercial Crew program.


How do you practice for Starliner missions?

Dempsey: Basically, we conduct a lot of simulations. During a simulation, the instructors can create several scenarios for the team to work through, such as failures of different systems. This gives us a chance to see if the rules and procedures that we have developed work as expected or if perhaps we have “holes”. For example, the team may have developed a Concept of Operations, or CONOPS, that works for two different failure scenarios but does not work if both failures occur at the same time. Although we can’t practice every possible situation, it allows the team to understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of their system so that if we experience an anomaly while on-orbit the team collectively knows how to approach and ultimately solve the problem.

When we are not simulating a scenario where something is going wrong, we are sitting around the table – or in my case lying in bed staring at the ceiling – trying to think of what else can go wrong. Then we design a simulation for that potential situation. 


What will it look like in mission control during the Orbital Flight Test mission?

Dempsey: Actually, it will look a lot like the space station team does now. Some of the console names will be different (for example, C&DH and INCO instead of CRONUS) but the operations are the same. Since we are using the same platform and software, the consoles will look identical. One difference is that we will be dealing with proprietary data so cameras and access will be restricted.


OFT Simulation. Credit: NASA