It’s a place that’s familiar to most. Hollywood has splashed it across the big screen in many movies: the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston — where flight controllers carry out NASA’s human spaceflight missions, whether they involve human footprints on the moon or experiments aboard the International Space Station.
Although it is not as well known, there is another control center about 770 miles east of Johnson. The newly upgraded Payload Operations Integration Center (POIC) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages all the science aboard the space station.
On June 19, NASA unveiled upgrades to the payload operations control room where controllers have been commanding science experiments around the clock, 365 days a year since 2001. The new capabilities enhance collaboration and enable the ground team to help the space station crew and researchers around the world perform science more efficiently.
The POIC plans and coordinates all the research activities on the station with researchers around the world. In 2011 the space station’s assembly phase officially ended; now, crews devote more time to conducting science and technology research, to using the station for what it was intended to be, the largest, most complex orbiting laboratory ever built.
“Conducting cutting-edge research that benefits space exploration as well as life on Earth is the top priority for the space station,” said Michael Suffredini, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Program at Johnson. “With this amazing in-space laboratory now fully functional, the crews are able to dedicate more time each week to scientific research, and the payload operations team has had a major role in making that happen.”
The first upgrades to the control room since it was established were completed on June 11. The renovated room features a large high-resolution video wall with 24, 55-inch screens that expands the ability to share information with the team, such as live video, diagrams and photographs of experiments or displays on experiment power use or scientific data acquisition. The wall instantly enables teams to view multiple data and video feeds related to one or more experiments. With more than 200 investigations operating aboard the station at any time, it is important to share information rapidly among the ground team members so they can relay information more efficiently back to the crew in space.
“Over the course of the last 12 years, the team has learned much about how they can collaborate to maximize science return,” said Jay Onken, manager of Marshall’s Mission Operations Laboratory. “They used this knowledge to redesign the control room to have the most modern technical equipment to support the most amazing international engineering and scientific endeavor of the century.”
The upgrades complement the planned modernization of the International Space Station Mission Control Center at Johnson. The control center in Houston and the operations center in Huntsville both operate 24/7, 365 days a year and interact continuously. These centers work in tandem with ground facilities in Canada, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands to keep things running smoothly for research returns from orbit.
“NASA recently achieved a major milestone exceeding the goal of completing an average of 37 hours of crew-tended science per week across a six-month period,” said Carmen Price, leader of the payload operations integration function at Marshall. “The team even helped the crew achieve a record 72 hours of crew-tended science experiments — the most hours of science ever conducted by a space station crew in a single week.
“While the crew is sleeping, we are here conducting experiments remotely from Earth, ensuring numerous automated experiments have the power and data recording and transmission needed to operate successfully.”
With this much research going on daily, it’s good to have so many helpful eyes on the ground making sure science and technology run smoothly in orbit — even when the crew is resting. Space station researchers have completed more than 1,600 investigations since 2001. Coordinating research-operating schedules across Canada, Europe and Japan, as well as remote telescience workstations in the United States, the POIC processes hundreds of payload commands in support of investigations operating each day.