“The thundering engines vibrate throughout your body”

Computer scientist Jason Cordes tells us what it was like to work for NASA on the International Space Station during the time of Space Shuttle launches.

(From the archive)

The space shuttle lifting off
A space shuttle launch.
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Working for a space agency is brilliant. When I was younger, I often looked up at the stars and wondered what was out there. I visited Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and told myself that I wanted to work there someday. After completing my college degree in computer science, I had the great fortune to be asked to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as well as Kennedy Space Center.

Johnson Space Center is the home of the Mission Control Center (MCC). This is where NASA engineers direct in-orbit flights and track the position of the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle when it is in orbit. Kennedy Space Center, situated at Cape Canaveral, Florida, is where the Space Shuttle and most other space-bound vehicles are launched. Once they achieve orbit, control is handed over to Johnson Space Center in Houston, which is why when you hear astronauts calling Earth, they talk to “Houston”.

Space City

Houston is a very busy city and you get that feeling when you are at Johnson. There are people everywhere and the Space Center looks like a small city unto itself. While I was there I worked on the computer control system for the International Space Station. The part I worked on was a series of laptop-based displays designed to give astronauts on the station a real-time view of the state of everything, from oxygen levels to the location of the robotic arm.

The interesting thing about developing this type of software is realising that the program is basically sending and receiving telemetry (essentially a long list of numbers) to the hardware, where the hardware is the space station itself. Once you think of it like that, the sheer simplicity of what is being done is really surprising. I certainly expected something more complex. All of the telemetry comes in over a wire and the software has to keep track of what telemetry belongs to what component since different components all broadcast over the same wire. Essentially the program routes the data based on what component it comes from and acts as an interpreter that takes the numbers that the space station is feeding and converting them into a graphical format that the astronauts can understand. The coolest part of working in Houston was interacting with astronauts and getting their feedback on how the software should work. It’s like working with celebrities.

Wild times

While at Kennedy Space Center, I was tasked with working on the Shuttle Launch Control System for the next generation of shuttles. The software is very similar to that used to control the ISS. The thing I remember most about working there was the environment.

Kennedy Space Center is about as opposite as you can get from the big city feeling at Johnson. It’s situated on what is essentially swampland on the eastern coast of Florida. The main gates to Johnson are right on major streets within Houston, but at Kennedy the gate is on a major highway, and even then, travel to the actual buildings of the Space Center is a leisurely 30 minute drive through orange groves and trees as well as bypassing causeways and creeks. Along the way you might spot an eagle’s nest in one of the trees, or a manatee poking its head from the waters. Kennedy is in the middle of a wildlife preserve with alligators, manatees, raccoons and every other kind of critter you can imagine. In fact, I was prevented from going home one evening by a gator that decided to warm itself up by my car.

The coolest thing about working at NASA, and specifically Kennedy Space Center, was being able to watch shuttle launches from less than 10 miles away. It’s an incredible experience. The thundering engines vibrate throughout your body like being next to the speakers at an entirely too loud rock concert. Night launches were the most amazing, with the fire from the engines lighting up the sky. It is very amazing to watch this machine and realise that you are the one who wrote the computer program that set it in motion. I’ve worked in a few development firms, but few of them gave me as much emotion when I saw it in action as this did.

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This cs4fn blog is funded by EPSRC, through grant EP/W033615/1.

If the Beagle had landed…

by Peter W McOwan and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(Updated from the archive)

A replica of Beagle 2 in the Science Museum with solar panels deployed.
Image by user:geni from Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

A reason the Apollo Moon landings were manned was in-part because the astronauts were there to deal with things if they went wrong: landing on a planet or moon’s surface is perfectly possible to do automatically as long as things go to plan. It is when something unexpected happens that is always going to be the tricky bit.

Beagle 2 is a good example. It was a British-built space probe that was sent to explore Mars in 2003. Named after biologist Charles Darwin’s famous ship, Beagle 2, sadly it never made it. It was due to land on Christmas Day that year, but something went wrong and it vanished without a trace. Beagle 2’s disappearance was perhaps the inspiration behind the Guinevere One space probe in the 2005 Doctor Who episode ‘The Christmas Invasion’, but Beagle 2 was unlikely to have been stolen by the Sycorax.

Had Beagle 2 made it, the first thing we would have heard was its radio call sign, which was some digital music specially composed by Britpop group, Blur. It wasn’t the only part of the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission that had an artistic twist. Famous British artist Damien Hirst (the man who had previously pickled halved calves in formaldehyde tanks), had designed one of his famous spot paintings – rows of differently coloured spots – that was to be used as an instrument calibration chart. It would have been the first art on Mars, but it, instead, appeared to have become the first art all over Mars! However, if you shoot for the stars you have to expect things to fail sometimes. You learn and try again.

There was a twist to the story too, as eleven years later in 2015, the Beagle 2 was spotted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Using sophisticated image reconstruction programs working with a series of different images, a picture of it was created that allowed the scientists to work out some of what had happened. It had landed successfully on Mars, but apparently its solar panels had then failed to fully open. One appeared to be blocking its communications antenna meaning it had no way to talk to Earth, and no way to repair itself either. It may well have collected data, but just couldn’t tell us about it (or play us some Blur). The data it collected (if it did) may be there, though, waiting for the day when it can be passed back to Earth.

While it may not have succeeded in helping us find out more about Mars, Beagle 2 has presumably become the first Martian Art Gallery, though, displaying the one and only work of art on the planet: a spot picture by Damien Hirst.

More on …

  • Computer Science in Space
  • Read the full story of the trade-offs between human and machine control in Apollo in: Digital Apollo, David A Mindell, The MIT Press, 2011.

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This cs4fn blog is funded by EPSRC, through grant EP/W033615/1.