The first time you walk into the Mission Control Center’s front room, the first thing you will probably notice is just how quiet it is. The only thing you hear is a little background murmuring – everyone is speaking very softly. This is because everyone is wearing a headset that allows them to talk to people all over the world – and in space – and you don’t have to speak very loudly when using it. The first thing you do when getting to your console is put on your headset and plug in – this allow you to join the virtual world and become part of what is going on. Without a headset, you really have no clue if all is normal, or if all hell is breaking loose.
The headset is a very personal item for flight controllers in Houston. You are issued one when you first get assigned to console duty, and – at least in the old days – you were given all sorts of warnings about how your headset was going to be tracked and had to be returned before you checked out of the Center on the day of your retirement. In truth, headsets were often traded quickly in the heat of the battle when you had a problem and needed a replacement, so they became untraceable. Sure, it was assumed that each flight controller had one – no matter what the serial number – but after thirty years, no one had a list of who had been issued one anymore…so they were sort of like military uniforms – no one really cared what happened to them after they’d been issued.
There used to be a room on the first floor of MCC where you could take a headset to be repaired – if the cord had a problem, or it was scratchy, or the push-to-talk button had gotten flaky – you could take it up to the window, and if you had time, they’d fix it while you waited. Eventually, they got to a point where it was quicker to just hand you a new, working headset, and throw yours in a pile to be fixed (which was when any notion of tracking them by serial number went out the window). As I’ll talk about later, there were several generations of headsets in use at any one time and, eventually, my old Apollo-era headset reached a point where the repair guys didn’t really want to fix them – they wanted to just give me a new one – and that meant the newer design.
By the time I was a senior Flight Director, I honestly had no idea where headsets were issued anymore – I had mine, a couple of them actually, because if I needed a headset for a test or task in some obscure location, I could ask for one, and it would magically appear. I eventually had one in the drawer in the shuttle control room, one in the ISS control room, and one I had in my desk drawer in my office – for when I had to go to a simulation in another building and needed a headset for the job. And then, of course, I had a box of parts….
You see, because I liked the old Apollo-era headset (the Plantronics M50 that clipped on my glasses) so much, and they had been replaced by the Plantronics StarSet shortly after I began my career, I had been handed a bunch of random parts for the M50 by a headset technician who understood how important the right headset can be to a person. He wasn’t allowed to fix them anymore, and he had this drawer full of parts which he had no use for…so he figured there was no harm in giving me what I needed! I was an engineer, after all, and he must have figured I knew what to do with a jeweler’s screwdriver. There wasn’t that much inside that you could do except replace cords and broken connections – there were some solid-state components that either worked or they didn’t – the rest was just fixing mechanical issues, like deteriorated cords. With the help of that handful of parts and a couple of donor headsets over the years, I was able to keep my good old M50 operating until maybe two years before I retired, at which point all the spares were gone and I had to resort to using one of those new-fangled StarSets….