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Wow! She Controls a Space Station

October 17, 2018

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I love to read about young women in unusual jobs – and this one really had my eyes out on stems. The job description itself is fairly technical so I’m breaking it up into “bites in plain English” to make it easier to grasp.

Lauren Cooper hard at work (note the giant coffee container)

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Air & Space, June/July 2018

WHO IS SHE?

For the past three years, Lauren Cooper has worked as an “International Space Station (ISS) operations engineer” in the Johnson Space Center located in Houston, Texas. In the Mission Control room Cooper remains alert through eight-hour shifts as she and her colleagues do mission planning, analysis and real-time operations for the space station.

Flight controllers check systems and stand by for emergencies during a January 2017 spacewalk to replace ISS batteries 

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Air & Space, June/July 2018

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN EXACTLY?

The International Space Station is a large spacecraft in orbit around the earth. It serves as a home where crews of astronauts and cosmonauts live and work – it’s a unique science lab that travels at 17,500 mph and orbits the earth every 90 minutes. 

The space station has three to six astronauts and is controlled by onboard software – but this changes during rendezvous and dockings. “It’s a totally different issue,” says Cooper, “dockings bringing supplies and/or people require great skill and patience.” Note: to keep the crew of the orbiting lab happy they even send up ice cream.

The International Space Station – photo courtesy of the New York Post

WHY IS THIS A TRICKY BUSINESS?

“For example, we may need to turn the space station backwards or forward so the approaching spacecraft can reach a certain docking port,” she explains. “It’s not a sprint for us – it’s a marathon. We get the ball rolling months ahead of time to prepare. As we get closer to the final weeks the time constraints are critical.”

WHAT’S THE MOST EXCITING?

“Working with the astronauts and their return to earth,” says Cooper. “You watch for three hours as the crew takes their trip home – they go through a pretty violent return. They’re in a ball of plasma going through the atmosphere and then they touch down. One of the most exhilarating and emotional things for me is knowing that I played a part in bringing these guys home.”

WHEN DOES ONE WORK?

“When you’re new, you work the night shift, but that’s when the astronauts and the cosmonauts are awake so it’s a full workday in the middle of the night. The cool thing is this: the crew turns their cameras on so you can see them spinning and floating while you’re at your desk working towards the same goal,” she adds.

HOW DOES ONE TRAIN?

A two-year training program is required for all ISS operations engineers. “The first year is technical training so you get a master’s degree in the motion control system of the International Space Station,” says Cooper.

National Air & Space Museum – The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex

“The first year is a series of classes and tests – then you go into eight-hour simulations where they throw cascading failures at you. It’s pretty psychologically draining. Once you pass this, you are certified to sit in Mission Control.”

“My Dad is a private pilot and my grandpa was in the Air Force, so I’ve always had this love of flight.”

Interview by Rebecca Maksel for Smithsonian Air & Space, June/July 2018

UPDATE: On 9/5/18 the New York Post reported that a small hole had been drilled in the International Space Station. It was discovered when the American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts noticed a drop in pressure. If it hadn’t been spotted, the crew would have run out of air in 18 days. An investigation has been launched to find who is responsible.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick


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