Rendezvous Part 10 – Practice Makes Perfect

In my book Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control, I bring readers deep into the middle of how Mission Control worked during the Space Shuttle era. I give readers a glimpse of both the technology and the humanity required to put humans in space on a routine basis. There are many parts to this thirty-year story, and only a small portion of the tales fit into the book – so here is an excerpt from an unused chapter on the process of rendezvousing the shuttle with other objects in orbit. 

It was the job of the Sim Team to build all of these cases into our training – and rendezvous sims were probably some of the most interesting “chess games” we’d play in the control center. Because I spent so many years in the Flight Director job, I probably did more generic rendezvous sims than anyone else. Generic sims were for training new people in their jobs so that they would be ready for certification, making them eligible for mission assignments. Because mission specific sims kept getting fewer in number for each flight as the program went on, and it was necessary to make sure that you completed the rendezvous for those sims, they generally were fairly boring, almost dress rehearsals for the real thing. So, it was left to the generic sims to really push the boundaries and try the oddball failures- and see what evils might be lurking out in the edges of the envelope. That’s why I liked them so much. You never really knew what you were going to get.

Unfortunately, as resources became scarcer, even the generics had constraints put on later in the program, so oddball cases and breakouts became less common. In an attempt to make training more uniform each discipline developed specific “training objective” that each trainee had to see in order to qualify for certification. While this made it clear what the expectations were for certification, it took away the instructor’s ability to be creative – because there were only so many sims in which to cram all of the training objectives for a particular candidate. So, sims got yet more boring, and the creative days went away. I loved the early days of training for the Flight Director job, because you really had no idea where a particular day was going to end up.

In those early days, flying a generic rendezvous, you might get docked, you might get close – but not dock, or you might have to break out and plan for a subsequent today. Those were the “normal” ways in which a rendezvous could end. Beyond those, of course, were the more fun cases – often ending in an emergency de-orbit, where the orbit flight control team had to bring a badly compromised Orbiter down wherever they could – hopefully on a runway somewhere on the planet (although de-orbits to bail-outs were not unheard of). Changing the team and crew focus from successfully docking to a space station to the idea of configuring the vehicle for –  and then flying  – an entry and landing was a huge challenge, and one that left a great feeling of satisfaction when you were finished. Some days, of course it didn’t work out – and that was sometimes embarrassing for the sim team and they had to explain to management why they scripted a case where they killed the crew.

Personally, I always felt that as long as we learned something new (especially if it was something NOT to do), the sim was worthwhile despite the outcome. After all, that was what sims were for – to learn the edges of the envelope, and to try new things that might be of benefit later on. Even the far-out cases that no one ever really wanted to document were good to have in your hip pocket. Because you never knew when the world was going to go to worms, and you might have to get creative. We learned that from Apollo 13. Most of the creative ideas that brought that mission home after its oxygen tank exploded were things that had been tried in out -of-the-box sim cases. Not all at once, but bit by bit. Controllers put those cases in their hip pockets and pulled them out when faced by a situation that no one had really anticipated. But lots of us took our Scout training to heart, and felt that we always needed to Be Prepared – and that meant you kept working and learning until you ran out of time – not until you felt that you had learned it all.

Actual rendezvous were generally boring, quiet affairs because of the intensive training we went through – not just because of what we stored in our heads, but because the sims help us ring out the procedures and look for problems that we simply hadn’t anticipated before we got into a real-time environment. One of the most amazing things about the US human space flight program is that since the very first attempt to bring two spacecraft together on orbit during Gemini, we have never completely blown a rendezvous. We have had some awful strange proximity operations, some that used a lot of fuel and led to a breakout, but we have never failed to bring the target and chaser to within a reasonable distance at a reasonable closing speed. That says a huge amount for the pre-flight preparation that goes into the planning and training, the incredible job done in developing tools and the mathematics behind rendezvous, and the outstanding dedication by tens of thousands of folks who have devoted their lives to perfecting the task of bringing two vehicle together in space.


We hope you have enjoyed this ten part look at space shuttle rendezvous! If you enjoyed this look inside the Shuttle program, you can find many more details and stories in the book – look for it wherever you buy your paper books, or add it to your favorite E-reader or audio book account.

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