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Photos: Inside Nasa's Mission Control Center

The tech that supports Nasa missions from the moon landings to the present day

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Topic: Hardware
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1 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

Nasa's nerve centre

The tech that supports Nasa missions from the moon landings to the present day

This room served as the nerve centre for a host of Nasa missions over several decades.

It is one of two flight control rooms in Nasa's Mission Control Center used for more than 30 years - from 1964 and the early days of space exploration through to space shuttle missions in the mid-1990s.

The centre ran some of Nasa's most important missions, including Gemini 4 in 1965 - when an astronaut performed the first US spacewalk - and the Apollo moon landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

silicon.com toured the former mission-control facility as part of a visit to Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to see how the computing tech has evolved.

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2 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

This is one of the consoles used by flight controllers to command and monitor spacecraft during those early missions.

The consoles, with their built-in CRT screens, are far more basic than the computer workstations used by Nasa in its space shuttle and International Space Station flight control rooms today.

These early control rooms were supported by IBM mainframe and later Univac computers, which helped process data from spacecraft and relay it to and from the flight room consoles.

Flight controllers had to try and spot problems with spacecraft systems by monitoring warning lights and scanning blocks of figures on their display, looking for values that fell outside acceptable limits.

To allow flight controllers to read the dim display, the room was kept dark and was also often hazy with cigarette smoke.

Flight controllers used the buttons on the left side of the console to patch communication channels into their headset.

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3 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

Flight controllers chose the spacecraft data feeds that they wanted to see displayed on their screen by entering numbers on this dial.

Controllers with complicated mission-control tasks, such as calculating the trajectory of spacecraft, would have to call up more than 100 different data displays during the course of a mission.

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4 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

Before the advent of email, staff in the flight control rooms used a pneumatic switching system to exchange messages with support staff.

Paper messages would be put in a tube such as the one pictured and then dropped into a hatch built in to the console. The tubes would then be transported through sealed pipes by air moving at high speed, allowing messages to be delivered across Johnson Space Center within tens of seconds.

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5 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

This is the room at Nasa mission control for today's operations onboard the International Space Station.

Each flight controller looks after a different part of the space station mission, from guidance and navigation of the station to the health of the crew.

The flight director sits in the middle of the room, co-ordinating the team of flight controllers who work at about 18 consoles.

There are two flight control rooms at Nasa mission control centre - one looking after the International Space Station and the other taking care of space shuttle missions.

Both the space station and the shuttle flight control rooms use identical workstations, and most data related to the station or the shuttle can be viewed from either facility.

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6 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

The screens at the front of the room display information about the station's trajectory around the earth, video feeds from within the station and other data.

Today there are two computer workstations at every critical console in the flight rooms, allowing the flight controller to move to a back-up machine in the case of a failure.

The speed at which a console can be recovered is a great improvement over the old flight control rooms, where technicians had to dismantle consoles and attempt repairs while manned missions were taking place.

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7 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

Pictured above is a close-up of the displays at a console in the International Space Station flight control room.

The flight control room workstations colour-code data to flag up problems, with figures coloured red or yellow if they stray outside normal values.

The workstations can also plot graphs of data over the course of hours or days, allowing flight controllers to spot significant changes that occur incrementally over long periods, such as gradually rising temperature or humidity in a spacecraft.

The orange screen at the left of each console is a touchscreen panel that allows flight controllers to patch in different communication channels, like the buttons on the terminals in the old flight control rooms.

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8 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

This is the flight control room for the space shuttle. At the moment this photo was taken Nasa flight-control staff were preparing for the launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

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9 of 9 Nick Heath/silicon.com

This is the main datacentre for Johnson Space Center, which serves both mission control and operations in the wider facility.

The mission-control centre has 550 workstations linked to 150 servers, running 23 sub-systems.

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