Mission Control Room at the European Space Operations CentreCredit: ESA - Jurgen Mai
Mission Control Room at the European Space Operations Centre

Job Profile

Spacecraft Operator

Spacecraft operators are essential to the success of any space mission. From launching the spacecraft to ensuring that it is running correctly, they efficiently diagnose and solving any problems that occur. They guide and control space flight from their control centres. For example, NASA’s Mission Control centre or ESA Operations Station.


What would you be doing? 

Spacecraft operators, or 'flight controllers' monitor the technical aspects of live space missions through telemetry. Each controller is an expert in a specific area, but they all come together with strong communication to control the mission. There is a constant stream of communication between all controllers, the lead controllers, the ‘backroom’ engineers, other mission control rooms, and the astronauts. The flight director leads flight controllers and monitors the activities of the team. The team is responsible for the safety and success of the astronauts and mission. 

What does a typical day involve?

A mission control team has about five people who work on a particular role, who work for 9-hour shifts on rotation. It involves a lot of planning, organisation, controlling, and executing operations on the missions.  

Skills needed -- What type of skills or qualifications are needed?

As each role in the operation team is so specific, there are many required qualifications in order to differentiate yourself into your job. One would first have an engineering or technical degree to gain a specific technical discipline based on background and interest. There are many skills that do not require a degree, such as flexibility. One needs to have a fast reaction time to sudden and unexpected moments in order to respond to the situation. One also requires technical skills, communication, interpersonal skills, and team management. They must shift through the complexity, evaluate situation and options, and overcome the intimidation and fear.  

Different Roles

TitleRole Description
Flight Director The leader of the team. Makes final decisions regarding safety, payload operations, and monitors the other flight controllers through loops of intercom channels.
Flight operations directorAssists flight directors to make decisions in relation to cost and public relations. 
CAPCOMCommunicates with the spacecraft, directly with the crew. It is crucial that communication with the astronauts goes through one person rather than the whole mission control team. ‘CAPCOM’ if usually another astronaut 
Flight SurgeonMonitors medical aspects of the mission
Ground Controller Responsible for the telemetry and directs operation and maintenance activities. 
Public Affairs OfficerProvides commentary regarding the mission to the public
Flight dynamics officerMonitors and manoeuvres trajectories
Propulsion engineer monitor Controls reaction and manoeuvres orbital propellants
Guidance, navigation and controls system engineerMonitors navigational systems 

Interview / Industry leaders --Who are some key people in the industry?   

Chris Craft- A NASA aerospace engineer that created the concept of mission control team and developed its organization, operational procedures, and thereby its culture. 

Gene Kranz - NASA’s flight director through the Gemini and Apollo missions 

Mark S. Geyer- current Johnson Space Center Flight director 

Online resources -- Where can I get some more information?

https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/9-12/features/F_Mission_Control_Gets_Us_Into_Space.html

https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/12/apollo-flight-controller-101-every-console-explained/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/04/01/what-it-takes-to-be-a-nasa-flight-controller/#1e3a990d953d

Author

Caroline Swenson

Caroline is an undergraduate studying Physics with a concentration in Aerospace and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame.

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