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Home > MSFC Landmarks & Facilities > Marshall Center has 40-year Mission Operations Heritage

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.

Huntsville Operation Support Center (HOSC)
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 the Cape.

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 report.

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 crew.

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.