Boeing Frontiers
September 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 05 
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools

Back in command

Facing a serious situation with the space station, Boeing employees and contractors came together for the fix


It wasn't exactly lost in space, but when the International Space Station's Command and Control computers malfunctioned in April 2001—and all communications were lost—there were serious flight concerns.

Brad Cothran, Boeing's director of Avionics and Consolidated Labs for the ISS program, was in a staff meeting when he received word there was a problem on station.

According to Cothran, the most frustrating aspect was not being able to acquire any data in order to find out how the orbiting outpost was doing.

"Those first few hours were beyond belief," Cothran said. "For years, you know exactly what is happening up there, and then one day the screens just go blank. And it's hard to solve anything without data."

"We weren't worried at all. I personally had no doubt that the team on the ground could solve this problem," said astronaut Jim Voss, one of the Expedition Three crewmembers on board the ISS at the time.

The situation began shortly after Space Shuttle Endeavour arrived at the ISS on mission STS-100. The station's primary Command and Control computer started to exhibit problems and eventually shut down, so a secondary system had to take over.

The secondary computer also began showing signs of trouble, however, and finally a third command and control system was employed. But the third control system locked up and refused to report any status information to either Mission Control or the astronauts on board the station.

At this point, a team of Boeing employees and contractors from across the country mobilized, seeking an alternate way of communicating with the station. They worked around the clock to reroute communications from the ground to the station through Endeavour, while mission managers approved an extended stay for the shuttle until the computers were repaired.

The team, numbering nearly 300, worked together and quickly determined the root cause of the problem was in the hard drives of the Command and Control computers.

Using an onboard spare and a backup computer from the payload control system, the ground teams and astronauts made a temporary repair. The malfunctioning hard drives were returned to Earth for more testing and evaluation.

Within seven months, the station was equipped with all new technology called the Solid State Mass Memory Unit, which increases reliability and storage capacity within the station's system. In October, the SSMU-equipped Multiplexer/DeMultiplexer will reach a milestone of controlling the station for longer than the old machine ever did.

"It's really remarkable how everyone pulled together," Cothran said. "It didn't matter who you worked for or which team you were on. Everyone 'took their badge off' and found a way to work through this quickly and accurately.

"It has definitely changed relationships and made us stronger as a team," Cothran said. "There is more trust and dependence within the team because folks understand how much we all need each other to be successful."

In May, the same Boeing employees and contractors came together once again for a Space Flight Awareness award presentation honoring their contributions to the recovery effort. "It was one of my finer moments in space flight," Voss told them. "I was proud to be a member of your team."


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