Thursday, 4 June 2015

Fifty Years of Mission Control in Houston

NASA's new flight directors on the eve of Gemini 4 in 1965: (l to r) Glynn Lunney, Eugene Kranz, John Hodge and Christopher Kraft. NASA Photo.

This week NASA is marking fifty years since the flight of Gemini 4, the second crewed Gemini flight, which has gone down in history for the first spacewalk by a U.S. astronaut. Gemini 4 was a notable milestone for other reasons as well.

When astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White began their flight on June 3, 1965, it was the first to be controlled from the brand new control centre at Houston, Texas, built as part of what is today known as the Johnson Space Center. Previous flights, including the pioneering Mercury flights and the three-orbit Gemini 3 mission earlier that year, had been controlled from a control room near the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The control centre in Houston incorporated the latest advances in computers, and included monitors that allowed individual controllers to better keep track of what was happening on board the spacecraft. 

The detailed concepts for the new control centre and NASA’s worldwide tracking network were developed with the help of many of the Canadian and British engineers who had come to NASA in 1959 after losing their jobs when the Canadian government cancelled the CF-105 Avro Arrow. 

Members of this group, including John Hodge, Tecwyn Roberts, Dennis Fielder, George Harris and John Shoosmith, helped design the new control center under the supervision of the legendary Christopher Kraft, NASA’s original flight director and later director of JSC. 

Kraft and others gave Roberts a great deal of credit for the design of the new control centre, which included two separate control rooms surrounded by a number of ‘back rooms’ staffed by management and other specialized personnel. Roberts, who was born in Liverpool of Welsh descent, was the original flight dynamics officer in the Mercury Control Center with the responsibilities of keeping track of the spacecraft at all times and of preparing for upcoming maneuvers. 

In the design of the the new Mission Operations Control Rooms, Roberts incorporated a flexible setup that set the stage not only for the Gemini flights of 1965 and 1966, but also the Apollo flights which were due to launch in the near future. Indeed, the original setup of the mission control rooms stayed in place through much of the shuttle program until a major makeover took place in the late 1990s. 

Before Gemini 4, only one American flight had lasted longer than six orbits - the 22-orbit, 34-hour-long flight of Gordon Cooper that closed the Mercury program in 1963. In every flight up to Gemini 4, Kraft had sat at the Flight Director’s console the whole time, except for the overnight shift on Cooper’s flight, when his deputy, former Avro engineer John Hodge, was in charge.

Gemini 4’s four days in space meant that round-the-clock flight operations would become the norm in the new control centre, and so just before launch, Kraft introduced the new team of flight directors that included himself, Hodge, and newcomers Eugene Kranz and Glynn Lunney. 

All would play key roles in the years to come in Gemini and Apollo. Kranz was on console when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and he became even more famous for his work organizing the rescue of the Apollo 13 mission. Hodge, who had come to Avro Canada from England, was flight director for Gemini 8 when its crew of Neil Armstrong and David Scott faced America’s first crisis in spaceflight when their spacecraft spun out of control due to a short circuit.

But in June of 1965, the first historic event to be controlled from Houston was Ed White’s spacewalk on the third orbit of Gemini 4. White's spacewalk lives in memory thanks to the spectacular photos taken by McDivitt of the event. 

Like the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who had walked in space in March 1965, White encountered problems returning to his spacecraft. But once back inside, he and McDivitt flew on for four days and served notice that the United States would soon overtake the Soviet Union in the 1960s space race. 

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