vol 8, issue 12

Nasa's Control Centers: design and history

16 December 2013
By Layne Karafantis
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The Mission Control Operations Room, 1970

The Mission Control breathed a sigh of relief when Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth on 17 April 1970

People at work in the Mission Control Centre

The MCC in Houston, during Apollo 4 flight

Nasa officials lighting cigars and waving flags

Nasa officials, including spacecraft designer Max Faget and now-manager Chris Kraft, celebrate the splashdown of Apollo 11

An aged plan of a proposed spacecraft control room

An early Nasa mockup of a proposed spacecraft control room

The design, architecture and technology of Nasa's legendary Mission Control Centers reflects the 20th century's tempestuous history and represents an important part of America's cultural identity from that period.

It's the kind of query that piques the interest of architectural researchers, whereas contemporary engineers might not register it: why should command and control centres from the Cold War era be so alike? Careful examination of these similarities reveals an object lesson in technology dictating design.

The first place to go for information is the contractors who helped to create them. Contemporary documents show how design decisions crossed over from military applications, such as the Strategic Air Command headquarters, to civilian agency rooms, such as Nasa's Mission Control Center in Houston. These control rooms were conceived by architects, political leaders and military and civilian agencies to be more than simple updates of war rooms of the past; they were entirely novel technologies in themselves.

In the beginning

In the not-so-distant past, Nasa's Mission Control Center was often cited as the most highly automated information correlation centre in existence, because of the vast amount of data it processed. Data included astronauts' heartbeats, space-suit temperatures and almost 300 other types of information related to manned space missions.

The statistics were truly astounding. In 1965, the Mission Control Center housed the largest assembly of television switching equipment in the world – larger even than commercial studios in New York City – as well as the largest solid-state switching matrices of 20 megacycle bandwidth. This system was driven by more than 1,100'cabinets of electronics equipment, 140'command consoles, 136 television cameras, and 384 television receivers. Some 10,000 miles of wire linked this behemoth with more than two million wire connections.

John 'Jack' Garman, who advised flight controllers during the Apollo missions and later served as a Nasa executive, recalled the awe that the space inspired: 'When you walked into mission control... what you saw down on the first floor was all these big IBM mainframes with the spinning tape drives, and the lights blinking, and all that... to be able to see things happening on the screen in real-time was absolutely awesome.'

Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr has worked at various Mission Control posts since the inception of Nasa, most famously as flight director during its first decade, and he is often credited with the design of Nasa's control centres. The first room, dedicated to tracking space capsule movements, was called the Mercury Control Center, and it was built in 1959 in a former photography warehouse at what is today the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Kraft recalls that he did not know who started calling the room mission control, as 'MCC had meant Mercury Control Center to us, but mission control was okay, too; it had a nice ring to it'. Kraft's suggestions for the design of this room were pragmatic. Above all else, he wanted the command centre not to be solely about surveillance: it was also to allow its staff to take active part in the missions and, if necessary, to support flights and astronauts through remote control.

Kraft and his operations team decided on the number of consoles. Those included an environmental systems console, which would be monitored by a flight surgeon; a systems console to be watched by an engineer; a communications console, whose operator would relay all messages between the MCC and a capsule and which would most likely be manned by an astronaut; a console to keep track of the worldwide network of remote sites to be monitored by the Department of Defense; a console from which to monitor the rocket; a flight director's console, and a procedures console, which was the 'hall monitor' and kept track of all other every consoles in the centre.

Mapping the space era

To supplement the consoles, contracted employees from Philco-Ford and Western Electric designed and built the huge, now iconic, front-wall display for Mission Control in Florida. It was a large map of the world, which tracked a capsule's progress as it was detected by different radar stations around the globe. Kraft was sceptical of its usefulness at first. He says: 'It was a beautiful display. I understood what it was for, but I still thought it was superfluous.'

He soon changed his mind, however, admitting that 'the map was filled with vital information. The graphic format made it easy to grasp. A Mercury capsule symbol moved along the sine wave, or ground track. I knew instantly where it was'. Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz remembers the map in somewhat less glamorous terms, and recalls it as watching a 'toylike spacecraft model, suspended by wires, moving across the map to trace the orbit'.

That whole mission-control structure, however, soon proved inefficient. Project Mercury's orbital missions, such as the one that carried John Glenn around the Earth, necessitated constant updating of equipment and procedures. The communications system was particularly limited, as there was no global network at the time, and remote monitoring sites took up to 15'minutes to respond to Mercury Control Center queries. The Gemini missions that followed needed more complex monitoring, and the system had to be retooled. Nasa came to recognise that off-the-shelf electronics gear would be insufficient to control future missions.

For the Mercury programme, Nasa was dealing with simple, one-man spacecraft. There was neither extravehicular activity (or 'spacewalks'), nor manoeuvring, nor guidance, nor rendezvous. The missions of Gemini and Apollo would require the ability to carry out all of these tasks.

The number of upgrades required was large, too large to implement within the existing space in Cape Canaveral. Kraft says: 'To manage and control missions to the Moon, we'd need a new and bigger centre, along with changes still unknown in the worldwide tracking network.'

Houston, we have a location

In 1961, Kraft, along with fellow Nasa employees, initiated a study to determine the location for a new command centre. After rejecting a move of the Mission Control Center to the Goddard Space Flight Center, due to the latter's small size and managerial conflicts, Nasa looked to other potential locations.

Requirements were very demanding indeed and included: 'Access to water transportation by large barges, a moderate climate, availability of all-weather commercial jet service, a well-established industrial complex with supporting technical facilities and labor, close proximity to a culturally attractive community [sic] in the vicinity of an institution of higher education, a strong electric utility and water supply, at least 1,000 acres of land, and certain specified cost parameters.'

Houston fit the bill on almost all counts, and it surely did not hurt that it was located within Vice-President Lyndon Johnson's home state of Texas, as well as in the congressional district of Albert Thomas, the chairman of the body that oversaw Nasa's budget. Houston welcomed the space agency and was particularly pleased that local firms received 29 of Nasa's 32 subcontracts for the design and construction of the site.

On 19 September 1961, Nasa announced that a new 'spaceflight laboratory' would be located in Houston on 1,000 acres of land that was donated to the government by Rice University, and on another 600 acres, specially purchased to give the site direct access from the highway. Gene Kranz later noted that while he at first thought the control centre should be near the launch site in Cape Canaveral, it was actually good to locate it near a 'feeder university', like the University of Houston, so that Nasa would be able to recruit young people with technical training in cryogenics and computers, who would lend a 'youthful exuberance' to the workplace.

The Manned Space Center (MSC), as Nasa officially named the complex, was built about 28 miles south of downtown Houston, close to the shores of Clear Lake, which provided access into Galveston Bay. Within the 1,600-acre site, Nasa positioned Building 30, which housed the Mission Control Center, in November 1964.

The centre in Houston would provide centralised control of all Nasa manned spaceflight missions – from launch through recovery. To meet the requirements for the Gemini missions, the new Mission Control Center needed increased flight safety and mission performance awareness via real-time data displays. Flight controllers would be stationed at consoles, as they had been at the centre in Florida, where they would receive critical mission information during real or simulated excursions.

The space where these actions took place was officially named the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR), of which there were actually two identical instances, both located on the second and third floors of Building 30. These Flight Control Rooms (or FCRs, pronounced 'Fickers') were where flight controllers got information from personal console computer displays, or from projected displays on the wall at the front of the room, where they would work 'feverishly at their consoles, headsets in place'. The third floor FCR was primarily designated to monitor Department of Defense payloads, but either could be used as Nasa's manned spaceflight mission control: configuration could allow for two missions to be conducted simultaneously.

Control centre

Chris Kraft was satisfied when the space was completed, noting that 'the Houston centre was spacious, the computers were faster and had much more capacity, the modern intercom system worked, and we were surrounded by support rooms where bright young systems people kept us supplied with every detail we requested. The words 'control centre' now encompassed all of it'.

The design was based on control centres of the past, but its high-tech components had necessitated novel interior architecture. Ford Motor Company recalls its accomplishment proudly: 'The project transformed science fiction into reality, because it meant that manned space activities would be conducted with full 'Earth Control' – a big leap at the time.'

In March 1965, Mission Control came online to serve as a backup for the Gemini 3 mission, and in June of that year Mission Control Houston became the primary control center for all manned Nasa flights, starting with Gemini 4.

Due to television and press coverage, Americans, as well as people across the globe, came to identify Mission Control with the Gemini and Apollo spaceflight accomplishments between 1965 and 1972. According to Johnson Space Center historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, 'one of the most popular images was taken after the Apollo 11 crew safely returned home and featured flight controllers celebrating the conclusion of the first successful mission to the Moon'. This space came to symbolise American technological and political prowess through accomplishing spaceflight feats in the Cold War.

By the 1990s, however, the once-revolutionary technology that supported Mission Control was again outdated to the point that the entire centre needed to be redesigned. In July 1995, a new Mission Control Center, with a new generation of cutting-edge technologies, began operations. The MCC, from which Nasa had landed a man on the Moon, was set aside as a national historic site. *

Layne Karafantis is a PhD candidate in history of science and technology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA

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Information Technology Mercury Control Center's First Computers

The first computers used in the Mercury Control Center were a major obstacle for pursuing more advanced human spaceflight missions.

The machines, which ran the system at Cape Canaveral, were actually located hundreds of miles away, in an IBM building on Washington DC's Pennsylvania Avenue. From Florida, tracking data was sent north, the computers in DC processed trajectories, sent this information over telephone lines back to the Cape, and then the information was displayed on the control centre's plot board. Glynn Lunney, the flight dynamic officer at Mercury Control Center, found it to be 'a relatively crude system'. Once data was received, there were no screens at consoles, only meters to display the telemetry data.

For the new control room in Houston, the meter system needed to be transitioned to a digital computing schema. This potential change worried some operators. Nasa controller Rodney Loe recalls that Nasa men who had worked on Mercury felt more secure with viewing data on meters, because they were 'hard meters, and the meters had limits, you could set [them]. You [could] pull a tab down, and then if the needle got above that tab, you'd get a red light'.

This physical interaction with'the consoles was important. As Loe says: 'Here was another piece of equipment that could fail, that'would be between us and'the spacecraft, and would cause us to lose data.' The transition needed to occur, however, and console operators struck a compromise. When computers replaced the meters data was displayed on console screens through digital representations.

In 1962, Nasa hired two contractors to design the computer system and the operational layout of Mission Control. IBM was awarded the Real-Time Computer Complex contract to build a digital command system to control the Gemini spacecraft, its target vehicle Agena, and the Apollo craft. The final design consisted of five IBM 7094 main processors using a customised IBM operating system. This system processed 'telemetry, trajectory and command data. The data was routed to recorders, meters and the digital-to-TV displays'. Philco-Ford was also contracted for a development study for Manned Space Flight Operation Control and Support in Houston. This was a human engineering study as it explored how data processing and display systems could provide information to flight controllers so that they could direct missions, which would be powered by the IBM architecture.

For anyone acquainted with'the history of electronics, Philco may seem an odd candidate to design Nasa's Mission Control Center, but the'company – a pioneer in early radio and television products – had changed hands and focus by the 1960s. Ford Company acquired the enterprise in December 1961. Soon, Philco-Ford cultivated aerospace contacts and acquired work. A former employee speculated that Ford's interest was largely a marketing ploy to cultivate a high-tech image through the highly visible space programme. Regardless of the motivations, the strategy worked. In 1963, Philco-Ford Western Development Laboratories was awarded the Nasa contract for the design, development, implementation, maintenance and operation of the Mission Control Center-Houston. The contract required that Philco-Ford WDL establish the Philco-Ford Houston Operations. This would be awarded further contracts for maintaining and upgrading the centre in the following years.

Timeline

May 1961 On board Freedom 7, Alan Shepard became the first American to be launched into space; he lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds.

Dec 1968 Apollo 8 launched by the US to be the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon.

July 1969 Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin reach the Moon's surface with Apollo 11.

March 1972 US launch of unmanned Pioneer 10 as the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt and obtain close-up images of Jupiter.

Aug 1977 Voyagers 1/2 were launched on what was supposed to be a five-year mission to study Jupiter and Saturn. They continue to send back pictures and data today.

Jan 1986 The launch of Challenger was the first shock for Nasa after it exploded shortly after take-off, killing the seven crewmembers.

April 1990 High-powered telescope, Hubble, was carried into orbit to relay detailed images of distant planets and constellations back to Earth.

Dec 1996 The Mars Pathfinder mission included the launch of Sojourner, the first rover to successfully reach another planet.

Aug 2007 Nasa launched Phoenix Mars Lander, a robotic dirt and ice digger to investigate the habitability of Mars's surface and the presence of water.

May 2011 Shuttle Endeavour launches on its final flight to the International Space Station with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector.

Nov 2013 Maven launched for a 10-month cruise of Mars to investigate the changes in its atmosphere over the years.

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