Sunday, August 28, 2011

Don’t mind the noise; we’re building a new Mission!

Welcome Back to the Moon! The view from the ILSR Field team in northern labrador. Read all about their adventures here!

It's the end of August and the change of seasons is in the air. Labour day is almost here, the US Open starts up tomorrow, and it's time for us to wrap up the ILSR Analogue programme with one more field deployment. As part of the famed "Anablog" I contributed a column which I've copied below. The original can be found here. For more information as it happens, keep up with the blog!

What’s changing as we move from SLAM to KRASH.

The end of the Sudbury Lunar Analogue Mission (SLAM) was, in a way, just the beginning. Almost immediately, our thoughts turned from the hectic two-hour cycle of Mission Control to think about how we would manage actual live astronauts in the field in addition to our robotic rover. Could we use the experience gained in June to our advantage? What could stay the same? What would need to change?

This weekend marks the culmination of that summer of planning. The team is now in the field and operations go LIVE on Monday, August 29 for the Kamestastin Research Analogue Site for Human exploration, better known in these parts as KRASH. KRASH brings us back to the Moon by heading up to Northern Labrador. There we will simulate two different missions. The first scenario will play out near the rim of Kamestastin Crater as two Astronauts, Anna Chanou and Raymond Francis, imagine themselves to be visiting a site that has been well-characterized by a precursor landed rover, as simulated in August of last year.

Landsat Image of Kamistastin (Mistastin) Crater. The golden area in the upper right has been dubbed the "Rim Site" whereas the lower left is "Disco (Discovery) Hill."

It is the task of the Astronauts during the first week to take that information and to push it further. They will follow-up on the discoveries of the rover and head off into terrain where it could not safely go. Ultimately, they will need to decide what samples best tell the story of the crater and should be made to fit within a tight mass budget for the return trek from the Moon. During the second week, the Astronauts depart and the rover continues on alone to do follow-up work, helping to characterize the site.

Simultaneously, the Astronauts move to a second site, known as Discovery Hill (at Mission Control, we have nicknamed this area “Disco Hill” in 1970s style). There they will engage in the same exploratory mission, except this time without the benefit of a sidekick onto which tedious tasks might be downloaded. Things will also change significantly here at Mission Control in London. Gone are the two hour cycle and the frenetic pace of planning to the clock. In its place we will have real-time voice communications. In some ways this is a mixed blessing – during SLAM, missing an uplink window meant that our rover would sit there for two hours. But if problems could be understood and fixed and decisions made within that time, the rover wouldn’t even know we were scurrying about behind the scenes. But with Astronauts on the other end of the phone, not being able to make a decision costs the Astronauts and the field team for every second it takes us to sort ourselves out.

To fix this problem, we’ve added another process to the two we employed for Sudbury. Planning and Science are still there, but the minute-to-minute supervision of the Astronauts falls to a new process called Tactical. Within tactical are a steel-nerved crew whose tendrils reach out into all aspects of the mission. First, there are representatives of both Planning and Science to connect our Mission Control team together. Next, we have a Technical Officer who watches over the astronauts using maps and weather reports. Finally, just as in the Apollo days, CAPCOM talks directly to the Astronauts who also have the option of speaking to medical personnel at any time. These members give us our link out to the field.

But who brings everything together and makes the tough decisions? Who is our analogue Gene Kranz? That role falls to our Flight Director, Louisa Preston. If things fall behind schedule, if the astronauts have a dilemma in need of a solution, it will be Louisa whose task it will be to determine how to help them to stay on track. In some ways, it’s a bit like “Astronaut On-Star”.

This is a key difference for our mission as compared to what has come before. In some other missions, the astronauts were thought of as extensions of Mission Control, inviolably subject to its orders and decisions. In some cases, this meant that activities were procedure-based and that getting any sample took precedence over getting the best sample. Instead, the bonds on our Astronauts are a bit looser. At the large scale and on safety matters, the Flight Director has the final say with the Astronauts as full members of the team. But when it comes to the movement of the astronauts in the field and what samples they collect, that we will leave up to them. That way, if the Astronauts see something interesting from the ground they will have the latitude to go and investigate.

It’s a different way of doing things and it will be interesting to see how well it works. We’re giving it a try because it was clear to us at Mission Control that the Astronauts would have better “situational awareness” as we call it. But what we hadn’t anticipated was that the Astronauts themselves might forget about our disconnected understanding, thinking instead that we knew what was going on around them. This was discovered in somewhat comedic fashion during a pre-flight Operational Readiness Test, along with many other lessons.

Another test of our Analogue Mission resides in the make-up of the astronaut team. By putting together a geology graduate student - Anna, with a technically-minded Engineer in Raymond we will get to see whether sophisticated earthly training is a help or a hindrance when it comes to exploring a crater. More likely, we fondly hope, the skills of both will augment each other in such a way that the team will perform better than would either two engineers or two geologists.

Luckily for both Mission Control and the Astronauts, neither is headed into uncharted territory the way we did for Sudbury. One of our tasks this summer was to look at orbital imagery and determine the best paths to understand both of our field sites. As a result, both Tactical and the Astronauts will have maps in front of them of the general traverses they will attempt to undertake each day. Will these traverses change? As Raymond has famously noted, riffing off a well known military saying, “No plan survives contact with reality.”

That expression really captures our feelings of on-edge anticipation for the next two weeks. We’ve done a great deal of planning. We’ve thought about possible situations and scenarios. There has got to be a million ways this can go right and another million ways that it can go wrong. In fact, we haven’t even started and there’s already one worry. As I write this, a hurricane is making its way up the east coast and is tracking right for our field site! But that’s ok, in this kind of exercise, you sometimes learn more from your failures and adversity than from your successes.

Weather aside, I know that all of us want to see how this mission turns out. It’s going to be a lot of work, but if there’s something we don’t lack it’s confidence: we know that we can do this. And if Sudbury is any indication, we might just have a little fun along the way.

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