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As the threat of Hurricane Laura loomed over the Texas-Louisiana border, NASA backup control centers were activated in remote locations to continue support of International Space Station operations. Among those locations was the Huntsville Operations Support Center at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The support center was activated Aug. 25 and served as the control center and communications hub for the space station. The Marshall team facilitated communication between Marshall and NASA’s Johnson Space Center flight control team that was relocated from Houston to Palestine, Texas. 

Flight controllers keep a constant watch on the station crew – monitoring their activities health, and safety, while also monitoring spacecraft systems to ensure operations proceed as planned. 

There were 11 ground systems controllers on-site at Marshall who monitored the servers and connectivity to the space station. Ground system controllers gather data from the station, which the flight control team uses to make decisions on how to best proceed with operations.

Each year during certification, Johnson gives full systems control to Marshall to ensure operational connectivity. The annual checkout is conducted in preparation for hurricane season or other extenuating circumstances. The backup checkout concludes with Johnson mission controllers coming to the Huntsville Operations Support Center and performing a full activation with international partners.

“This backup process is planned and practiced for each year,” Dwight Mosby, cost account manager for the Payload Operations Integration Center at Marshall, said. “This process is executed with no impact on critical station operations or the safety of the crew on board the space station.”

Due to COVID-19, the backup team performed this year’s checkout in a remote capacity. Space station operations transitioned back to Johnson’s Mission Control Center on the morning of Aug. 28, since Hurricane Laura turned away from the Houston area.

“During an emergency, like Hurricane Laura, it is important to have confidence that all the backup systems will be operational,” Jason Kelley, Backup Control Center Ops lead at Marshall, said. “The team here was ready and we supported station operations without skipping a beat.”

The Huntsville Operations Support Center became operational as a backup center Aug. 7, 2008, and just a month later the backup room was put to work as powerful and destructive Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas. This triggered evacuations and the Johnson team made its way to the Backup Control Center adjacent to the Payload Operations Integration Center – temporarily becoming the prime location for space station operations.

The payload operations team at Marshall integrates research timelines and requirements, schedules ground and crew training, plans the orbital research schedule, and ensures missions and experiments are safely executed. During each six-month space station research expedition, controllers manage science payload resources aboard the station, handle science communications with the crew, and oversee all transmissions to and from the unique microgravity laboratory.

For almost 20 years, humans have lived and worked continuously aboard the International Space Station, advancing scientific knowledge and demonstrating new technologies, making research breakthroughs not possible on Earth that will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space. Under this unique international partnership, 240 people from 19 countries have visited the station, which has hosted more than 3,000 research investigations from researchers in 108 countries and areas.

Editor’s note: Janet Anderson is a public affairs officer in Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis & Communications.

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