The Mission Control room for Russia’s Mir is like a concert hall. Lenin and Soviet space heroes look down on a high marble lobby. Climb a flight of stairs and walk through a door, and you’re on a red-carpeted balcony, looking down on rows of chairs and screens. But there’s no performance on this night. Mir’s long-running show is coming to an end.
The control room for Mir is actually one of the three control centers at Russia’s Flight Control Center, which is known here by its Russian acronym, TsUP (pronounced like “soup”).
Back on the main floor and down another hall is where the Russians monitor International Space Station Alpha. The equipment looks similar, right down to the advertising placards set up on the floor beneath the wall-sized map at the front of the room.
The feel is much different, however.
For one thing, the space station center is busier, at least on the night of my visit: Up to 50 controllers were manning computer stations for the shuttle Atlantis’ docking with Alpha, in contrast to the one or two people passing through Mir’s control room. But the surroundings don’t quite come up to Mir’s standards: The balcony has bare wood risers, the paneling is a corrugated gold-colored metal and some of the floorboards in the hallway are loose. All in all, it feels more like an inner-city high-school auditorium than a concert hall.
NASA at work
The third center, hidden behind Mission Control, feels more like a telemarketing boiler-room operation. This is NASA’s miniature Mission Control, staffed by about two dozen people who stare into row upon row of computer monitors and communicate with Houston instantaneously via video, the Internet and a 40-channel intercom system.
The team acts as a liaison between controllers in Houston and Korolyov. “We’re right here at ground zero, putting the station together,” says Tim Baum, manager of the Houston Support Group.
“I sometimes marvel at how the Apollo astronauts and Soyuz docked together and how they planned that whole mission (in 1975), because we are so heavily dependent on the Internet,” Baum says. “Work almost comes to a screeching halt when we lose our connections.”