The Sciences

How To Be a NASA Mission Controller

Running the nerve center is nervy business.


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1. Located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the heart of mission control was the Mission Operations Control Room, or MOCR (pronounced mo-cur). "I had the privilege of being present in the MOCR as two astronauts made the first landing" on the moon.

2. The big screens at the front used a rear-projection system that was half the size of the MOCR itself. "There was always some guy back there in the dark making sure it was working."

3. The controllers in charge of Apollo spacecraft systems sat in the second row. As an EECOM, Liebergot watched over electrical systems here.

4. The front row of the MOCR was dubbed "the Trench." It was where the controllers in charge of navigation and guidance sat. "They had their own matchbook and business cards, and they called us a bunch of plumbers and electricians. We demeaned them by saying 'all you guys do is watch trajectory plots.'"

5. Behind this window sat simulation conductors. "They read all [the flight controllers"] procedures, and then they devised training scripts to test us. Some of them took a lot of pleasure in trapping us, but the simulations were invaluable."

6. Mission control's consoles had handles for easier servicing, but controllers knew them as "security handles. They were something to grab onto in times of tension. You grab one handle, you got a problem. Grab two handles--you got a real big problem."

7. The rear of mission control was known as "management row" because senior NASA staff would sit there. The rest of the room was an alphabet soup of positions that watched over every aspect of the mission.

8. THE SCIENCE BACK ROOM: Here, scientists monitored the output of scientific equipment placed on the moon by Apollo 11 moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin.

9. CANNED SPAN: The Spacecraft Analysis room, or SPAN room, "was a bridge between the flight controller and engineering worlds." Requests for additional data that flight controllers needed were routed through here.

10. THE VOICE OF HOUSTON: Space veteran Pete Conrad at the Capcom's console, manned by Charlie Duke during the landing. The Capcom is the only person in mission control allowed to speak to the astronauts in space.

11. ON CALL: Flight surgeon Chuck Berry monitored Armstrong and Aldrin's vital signs.

THE FLOOR PLAN: The MOCR was surrounded by rooms full of supporting staff and "tons of equipment ... we had support guys in the back rooms who reported to us... and who were experts in particular subsystems. Controllers communicated via headsets, often listening to several conversations at once. Liebergot listened to those voices "for 20 years--and that's why I still have a constant ringing in my left ear!"

12. THE MER: Located in a different building from the MOCR, the Mission Evaluation Room was staffed with engineers to handle problems and requests for information that were passed on from the MOCR. "There was a little bit of competition... between flight controllers in the MOCR and the occupants of the MER: "We thought we were hot shit, and they thought that we weren't!"

13. "In the early days it was pretty crude ... They had binoculars because they didn't have consoles. The binoculars were so they could see [spacecraft system] data on the TV screens."

14. FLIGHT RULES: Gene Kranz was the flight director during Apollo 11's landing. During a mission, the flight director's instructions could be overruled only by firing him.

15. MOONQUAKE: Seismometers left on the lunar surface were sensitive enough to record the activities of Apollo 11 astronauts as they moved about the surface.

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