Sat. Jan 28th, 2023
An ISS control room at the Johnson Space Center.
Enlarge / An ISS control room at the Johnson Space Center.

Surrounded by rising tidewater, a skeleton crew at NASA’s Johnson Space Center keeps the lights on for the International Space Station.

About 125 people drive Harvey’s devastating flood to the scene at Johnson Space Center, or JSC. On site include the ISS Mission Control team, the support team for the James Webb Space Telescope (currently at JSC for testing), and the JSC Recovery Team, tasked with dealing with the storm and its impacts. to go.

“Current work focuses on supporting critical operations, weathering the storm and addressing minor issues such as repairing leaks and keeping sewers open as they arise,” a NASA representative said in a statement. email while working at home due to the flood.

No problem Houston

Redundancy is pretty much an article of faith at NASA, so it’s no surprise that the agency has backup plans for ISS Mission Control — and backup plans for its backup plans. If conditions in Houston appear to be getting too harsh, NASA may hand over Mission Control to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It can even activate a Backup Advisory Team, or BAT, a skeleton flight control crew that connects to their Mission Control workstations via laptops from somewhere outside the storm’s path. For example, when Ike reached the Houston area in 2008, the BAT conducted mission control outside of Austin, Texas.

This time, the Mission Control team stayed in Houston to weather the storm, and they’ve been busy. As floodwaters rose around them on Sunday, Mission Control talked ISS astronauts through an orbital adjustment maneuver that put ISS in position to dock with a Soyuz spacecraft due to arrive next month. A Progress cargo spacecraft currently docked with the ISS fired its engines to launch the station into a slightly higher orbit about a kilometer further from Earth’s surface.

And to give the trapped JSC crew some perspective on their plight, the helpful astronauts aboard ISS have sent home footage of Harvey from space.

James Webb keeps his cool

The other critical mission at Johnson is one that won’t launch until 2018: the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. The primary mirror arrived in Houston in May 2017 for a final round of cryogenic testing to make sure the mirror can actually withstand the cold of space. After months of individual testing, JWST’s assembled components (everything but the solar shield and spacecraft canister) began a 100-day test session in a vacuum chamber at JSC, where liquid nitrogen and cold helium gas will cool the telescope to minus 233 degrees Celsius.

Then came Harvey. Now it’s up to the JSC Recovery Team to keep the test running and, most importantly, prevent damage to NASA’s $10 billion space telescope. So far everything is good.

“The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), at JSC for testing, is in good condition. All back-up facility systems necessary to maintain the JWST have been checked and readied as needed,” the NASA representative wrote.

The now retired Vomit Comet.
Enlarge / The now retired Vomit Comet.

Lee Hutchinson

Other NASA facilities in the Houston area include Ellington Field, home to a fleet of T-38 jets used for flight training for astronauts. Ellington used to house the infamous KC-135 “Vomit Comet”, which NASA decommissioned in 2004. “The NASA side of Ellington Field is doing well and all aircraft are safe,” the representative wrote. Ellington is also home to a Texas Air National Guard unit, a Coast Guard air station, and a Civil Air Patrol squadron.

“A bit surreal”

So what’s it like riding a hurricane at Mission Control? Flight director Royce Renfrew described it in a tweet shortly after he arrived to relieve another flight director on Sunday evening as “a bit surreal with people off duty crashing in the [flight control rooms].” Later in the day, he described JSC as an island surrounded by floodwaters.

Earlier in the evening, the @JSCSOS account noted that the storm sewers at Johnson were “holding their own” against the downpour, despite the 31 inches of rain the center received between Friday morning and late Monday. The center expects to receive an additional 3 to 5 inches of rain Monday evening and another 5 to 7 inches during the day on Tuesday.

Because this is NASA, the big challenge right now seems to be to keep employees from coming to work. A memo on the JSC emergency communications website on Monday night advised: “DO NOT APPLY IF YOU HAVE NOT BEEN ASKED! We’ll call you when we’re ready.” JSC SOS has repeated that message several times since Friday and the tone has become increasingly emphatic. (JSC employees, if you’re reading this, stop trying to go to work. It sounds like they mean business.)

Even with most employees unable to come to work, JSC is taking care of itself. “While the vast majority of our workforce is safe, many have sustained severe flood damage, are without power and may require other assistance,” JSC director Ellen Ochoa wrote in a message to center staff Monday night. At that point, nearly 90 percent of employees had checked in through JSC’s Emergency Notification System.

“We’re curious about the rest,” Ochoa wrote. “We are putting together a system to gather needs and mobilize volunteers to help our JSC family.” And just like in 2008 in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, JSC plans to open the Gilruth Recreation Center to give employees and their families access to showers, air conditioning and computers during the recovery process.

When the coast is clear

With rain still coming down, it’s not yet clear what the total eventual impact on JSC will be from a storm whose total damage to the Houston area could exceed $40 billion. In 2008, the last time a major storm hit the Houston area, more than 160 buildings at JSC suffered damage, mostly from heavy rain and flooding.

“The JSC Recovery Team has not yet had a chance to fully assess the impact of the storm on the center,” the NASA representative wrote. “The team has addressed issues as they arise and will conduct the full assessment when the storm threat recedes.”

That process will likely begin later in the week, before JSC reopens for normal operations. Harvey, now a tropical storm, is expected to make landfall east of Houston for a second time Wednesday morning, placing the city — and the Space Center — on the storm’s relatively dry west side. That means that the rain will decrease from Wednesday. With the floodwaters receding, it’s time to assess the damage, begin cleanup and repair, and move on to spaceflight.

“Our JSC recovery team did just that,” the NASA representative wrote.

Meanwhile, Ochoa managed to find some humor in the situation. “Ironically had to cancel survival training for #NewAstronauts this week,” she tweeted at 4:17 p.m. Monday. “They get partial credit, people on the ground full credit and big thanks.”

By akfire1

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