Suddenly, you’re barreling down toward Earth at speeds 10 times faster than a bullet, headed straight for Earth—but all the nerves are gone. You’ve landed this flight 100 times before.
Nearly 250 miles below, hallways within NASA Johnson Space Center’s Jake Garn Mission Simulator and Training Facility are lined with history. Since 1965, the facility, known to JSC team members simply as Building 5, has trained the world’s greatest explorers for Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle and International Space Station Program missions.
Building 5 is now home to a new innovation—the Crew Part-Task Trainers—which are spaceflight training simulators for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. The Starliner trainers will prepare NASA’s astronauts and flight controllers for the next era of human spaceflight with Starliner’s first crew launch to the International Space Station targeted for 2018.
The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is to return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil, providing reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet the agency’s stringent safety requirements. To accomplish this goal, NASA is taking a unique approach by asking private companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop new spacecraft to provide reliable transport of astronauts to and from the space station.
The Starliner Crew Part-Task Trainers, each a scale replica of the spacecraft’s control area, create a realistic simulation of spaceflight for comprehensive training. The trainers use technology similar to F-15 simulators that Boeing developed for the U.S. Air Force.
Rather than having rigid panels stretching over several positions and housing row upon row of switches, dials and readouts, as on the Apollo spacecraft and space shuttle, Starliner crews will rely on screens, about two dozen physical buttons and switches and a joystick. NASA CCP astronauts had the opportunity to offer input into the design of the trainers to help tailor the simulation for spaceflight.
“The simulation can be amazingly close to actual flight,” said NASA Flight Director Robert Dempsey, who is a member of the Starliner Flight Operations team. “It’s never going to be precisely how it is in space, but once we start receiving data from the simulator and the crew, our process mimics actual flight very closely.”
The simulated process begins with flight controllers writing procedures for each stage of the mission. From there, crew trainers in Building 5 identify potential failures that could arise during spaceflight and use them to challenge the crew and flight controllers during training.
“They might throw in a computer failure, a fire or a power failure that wipes out half of the systems,” Dempsey said. “We joke that the trainers are these evil geniuses who stay up at night planning how to trick us.”
These failures may be simulated, but Dempsey emphasized that emotions during a simulation are everything but.
“When I’m making a decision, it is very much on my mind that a wrong choice could kill the crew,” Dempsey said. “It’s simulated, but it’s not role playing. This isn’t ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’”
Pete Meisinger, Boeing’s program manager for Space Vehicle Training Programs, said the devices his team installed at Johnson are designed to prepare astronauts and flight controllers for any situation that could arise in the harsh environment of space.
“We have been working hand in hand with NASA for quite some time to ensure the devices at Johnson will deliver the highest level of training fidelity possible,” Meisinger said. “It is critical to us that the NASA team is prepared for the entire set of experiences it will encounter during a successful mission, and is ready to identify and resolve issues no matter how unlikely they are to occur.”
A huge benefit of virtual training is that even if the exact same problem doesn’t arise during spaceflight, the skills have been engrained so that the astronauts and flight controllers have the right mindset to identify problems that may appear and solve them.
“When you’re out there, you have to feel prepared,” said NASA astronaut Suni Williams, one of four astronauts selected to train for the first CCP spaceflights. “You have to get on the spacecraft knowing that all that other stuff is already taken care of.”
Simulations for the uncrewed Starliner flight test is scheduled to begin later this year at Johnson. The next step afterward will be to transition to crewed training in preparation for the first crewed launch of the Starliner spacecraft, slated for 2018.
When we look back on the last 50 years of human spaceflight, it is clear that training simulators have prepared astronauts and flight controllers for many obstacles. This next generation of trainers will make sure we are ready for any obstacle space throws our way.