Marshall Center has 40-year
Mission Operations Heritage
by Mike Wright
Marshall Space Flight Center Historian
Forty years before the Marshall Center began managing
payload operations on orbit, launch vehicle engineers in Huntsville
struggled to find ways to instantaneously share their technical
drawings and space-related documents with their NASA counterparts
in Florida and Houston.
Installing a fax machine may not generate much excitement
today. But it did in Huntsville in 1961 when the Marshall Center's
employee newspaper, the Marshall Star, ran the headline, "Exact
copies of Documents sent to Cape in 4 minutes."
At the time, engineers in Huntsville were building
the biggest and most intricate launch vehicle the world had ever
known, the 363-foot tall Saturn V Moon rocket with more than 3
million parts ranging from micro-miniature switches to pumps as
big as refrigerators. But the same engineers had no way to
quickly share any of their hundreds of technical
drawings, photos or typed documents with NASA engineers at the
launch site in Florida or in the mission control in Houston.
The Huntsville Operations Support
Center at Marshall prepares to provide
Support for the first Shuttle launch in April 1981
In fact, the Marshall Star pointed out that without
the installation of the new fax machine at the Center, engineers
had no way to rapidly transmit important documents back and forth
other than by plane.
The new fax machine in Huntsville may have looked
like a modern-day miracle in 1961. But more than likely Alice
Schmidtt, who operated that first data fax machine, and her boss,
Dr. Wernher von Braun, the first director of the Marshall Center,
knew that the race to build a Moon rocket demanded a much more
sophisticated way for engineers at Marshall to exchange data with
In the summer of 1965, von Braun established a Mission
Operations Office at the Marshall Center. "The significance
of the establishment of the new office is that MSFC is assuming
a more active role in mission activities now that the Center is
entering the launch and flight aspects of the Apollo program,"
the Marshall Star reported.
Among other functions, the new office was responsible
for a new Launch Information Exchange Facility (LIEF) described
as "an inter-center sophisticated communications network
connecting the NASA-Kennedy Space Center, MSC [the Manned Spacecraft
Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center] and MSFC."
Part of the LIEF also included the Huntsville Operations
Support Center (HOSC) where "launch data from KSC and flight
data from MSC are relayed to computers and engineering consoles
in the HOSC where specialists determine which of the hundreds
of measurements being recorded are most worthy of special attention,"
the employee newspaper reported. The Marshall Star called LIEF,
"the all hearing center during a Saturn launch."
Although the Saturn/Apollo program came to a close
in the early 1970s, Marshall continued to expand its Mission Operations
Office, an office that would play a vital role in the three Skylab
space station missions.
Only moments after launch in May 1973, engineers
knew the first Skylab mission was in serious trouble. A solar
shield failed to deploy. Marshall responded immediately. For days,
the Center focused every resource at its disposal on finding a
way to fix the problem.
Prime attention focused on the HOSC where Marshall
assembled a special troubleshooting team. That team and others
like it at Marshall and throughout NASA played a vital role in
identifying the procedures ultimately used to save Skylab. In
1975, Marshall's HOSC supported Apollo-Soyuz, the first joint
American-Soviet space mission. As part of the mission, engineers
monitored plans for the launch of a Marshall-managed Saturn IB
rocket carrying an Apollo spacecraft that rendezvoused with a
Soviet Soyuz spacecraft.
By 1981, the Marshall Star reported that Center
engineers were "working around-the clock-in the Huntsville
Operations Support Center" to support the Space Shuttle.
"During pre-mission testing, countdown, launch and powered
flight toward orbit, Marshall and contractor engineers and scientists
man consoles in the support center to monitor real-time data being
transmitted from the Shuttle. Their purpose is to evaluate and
help solve problems that might occur with Marshall-developed Space
Shuttle propulsion elements, including the Space Shuttle main
engines, external tank and solid rocket boosters" said one
In the early 1980s, the HOSC began its vital role
in supporting Shuttle launches. At about the same time, the facility
also began supporting powered flight and payload operations. Spacelab
was a multi-configuration, space-borne scientific laboratory designed
to fit inside the payload bay of the Shuttle orbiter.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Spacelab provided
scientists on the Shuttle with workbench space, power, computer
support, and racks and storage for experiment equipment. In May
1990, Marshall announced that beginning with the STS-35/Astro-1
Space Shuttle mission, all NASA Spacelab missions would be controlled
from NASA's new Spacelab Mission Operations Control Center at
Marshall. That facility supported the science astronauts on Spacelab
much the same that Mission Control in Houston supported the flight
Teams of controllers and researchers at the Huntsville facility
directed NASA science operations and sent commands directly to
the spacecraft. Controllers also received and analyzed data from
experiments aboard the vehicle.
One of the most historic dates in mission operations at the Marshall
Center came early on Sunday, Dec. 2, 1990. That's when STS-35
mission specialist Robert Parker initiated the first ever communications
between Huntsville and astronauts on orbit. "Huntsville,
this is Astro-1," Parker reported to controllers in Huntsville.