Front Row Seats
Engineers at the institute are at the helm of Webb’s Mission Operations Center, commanding and controlling the telescope.
In some ways, 2021 was a typical year for our engineering and operations staff. They partnered with scientists across the institute to develop and release software that improves how every mission and division conduct their work. For example, engineers worked closely with colleagues in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes to build and test its new Timeseries Integrated Knowledge Engine (TIKE) Science Platform, which formally rolled out in early 2022. They put the finishing touches on tools to help astronomers analyze data from the James Webb Space Telescope, and they moved the cleanup and reprocessing of Hubble Space Telescope data to the cloud. They also got to work on building the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope's data management system, which will allow our teams to ingest, process, archive, and disseminate that mission's data.
This year, one role the engineers play was front and center: STScI hosts Webb's Mission Operations Center and our engineers—along with the mission's partners—sit at the controls. Once Webb fully separated from its launch vehicle 27 minutes after liftoff, engineers in STScI's Flight Control Branch took control. They now command Webb's every move, continuously monitoring its health. They also initiated and oversaw all major deployments as Webb slowly unfolded while traveling for about a month to a location approximately 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth known as the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2).
During the first six months in 2022, every instrument on Webb will be fully commissioned, and engineers in the Flight Control Branch will be there to initiate and complete every move. How does our team prepare for these critical moments? It takes years of rehearsals, training, and team work. In November 2021, three engineers on our Flight Operations Team, Nasif Ahmed, Miranda Link, and Justin Truong, spoke about all the work they and their entire team poured into mastering how to control and command Webb in anticipation of its launch. They also followed up in January to reflect on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
How long have you prepared for Webb's launch and commissioning?
Miranda Link: I started as a controller for the Flight Operations Team in 2016. Our first rehearsal was in March 2017. Later that year, we were given headsets and were told we would be recorded for launch. I was nervous, of course, but I quickly became comfortable and confident in the hot seat. In 2019, I transitioned to the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph/Fine Guidance Sensor (NIRISS/FGS) instrument team, so I'm still using a headset, but I'm not front and center anymore.
Justin Truong: It has been a little over two years since I have been a part of Webb. At first, it was a bit nerve-wracking, but over time our teams did an amazing job preparing us for different phases of the mission's lifetime, especially during launch and commissioning. Rehearsals were broken down into key stages and practiced through multiple iterations so that every team member developed a deep understanding of what was expected. It really came down to practicing, while making the rehearsals seem as realistic as possible. The simulator engineers would throw every kind of anomaly at us and it was our responsibility to stay calm and initiate the appropriate response. These rehearsals helped prepare us for almost every single scenario. At the end of rehearsals, I was more excited than nervous.
Nasif Ahmed: When I started at the institute in 2017, I was testing requirements against ground software used for Webb. I've since moved to simulations on the Flight Operations Team where we initialize and maintain simulators to model various phases of the mission. During rehearsals, engineering teams practiced with the simulators to validate procedure readiness, ensured the proficiency of our protocols, and efficiently responded to anomalies injected by my team. It was humbling to see the team grow over the years as preparation, revision, and dedication trained us to work like a well-oiled machine.
How do engineers at the institute command Webb?
Truong: There is a section in the Flight Control Room called the front row, which consists of three engineers: an operations controller, a command controller, and a ground systems engineer. We monitor our connection to the Deep Space Network, send commands, carefully review the observatory's data, which is known as telemetry, and report any issue we spot to the mission operations manager. In the back room, there is a network of engineers and teams that specializes in Webb's subsystems and instruments. In the case of an anomaly, one of the teams responds almost immediately. All of the engineers in the front row have support at every moment.
Link: Adding to what Justin said, it's critical to know that the spacecraft is completely autonomous. This allows us to take our time to thoughtfully respond to and resolve any issue. Webb's systems are well designed and very robust, since most of the time during normal operations we will not be in live contact with it. After commissioning is over, our usual day will consist of two four-hour contacts.
Webb is an international partnership. Who else supports its operations?
Ahmed: Webb is a huge enterprise and we couldn't do it alone at the institute. Following launch, we communicate with Webb through the Deep Space Network, a global network of ground-based radio transmitters and receivers. We're confident about the location and trajectory of the spacecraft thanks to the Flight Dynamics Facility at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Northrop Grumman, who built the spacecraft, still lends their expertise as they work shifts with us in Baltimore. There are so many partners and we're in constant communication with everyone.
Link: For the science instruments, we always have two to three people on console at any time, but we also have a huge call-tree network. When in doubt, we can always call on our counterparts at Goddard, and staff from the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and many others depending on the instrument. We'll all work together through commissioning. For NIRISS/FGS, there are approximately 30 people on our international team.
What were you doing during launch? What does Webb's launch mean to you?
Truong: I supported launch at the backup Mission Operations Center at Goddard. Coming on console, I could definitely sense my colleagues' nerves mixed with their excitement. I had to be there several hours prior to launch and was constantly double checking, triple checking, making sure that the ground systems were green to go. I was sitting at the edge of my seat for the slight chance that there is a failover, at which point we were ready to take the wheel. I remember right before launch and before separation from the launch vehicle, the room and the voice loops were dead silent and then it was followed by deafening cheers. These past few weeks have been such a blur, but I am beyond grateful to be part of such an unforgettable experience and to be part of such an amazing team.
Ahmed: Days before launch, I tragically tested positive for COVID-19 and out of respect for institute protocols as well as my colleagues, I stayed home for launch—that's the reality of pandemic we are currently in. Fortunately, I could rely on the perseverance of my team to cover my shifts without a hitch. I was otherwise blessed to cozy up with my family early Christmas morning and watch the NASA broadcast, chatting with my parents and friends over a video call and explaining the different milestones we pushed past in just the first half hour—moments we had rehearsed with hundreds of staff for years that culminated in this final execution. I continued to listen for the rest of the day and even though I was miles away, I could feel exhilaration roaring from the Mission Operations Center. I've since recovered and am back on console, eager to support and experience more of Webb's exciting journey.
Link: I was called to support the Flight Control Branch at the backup Mission Operations Center at Goddard. I worked a 12-hour night shift just before launch, and got home to my partner (who also works for Webb) and a bottle of champagne at-the-ready at 5 a.m. When I left Goddard, the roads were quiet, and I got home quickly. I was excited! I changed into pajamas, and we curled up on the couch with the cats and tuned into the live stream on YouTube. My anxiety kicked in at about 20 minutes before launch. My anxiety-tears turned into tears of joy as we stayed up watching the live stream until 9 a.m. Every big moment came with a burst of happy tears and a sip of champagne. Needless to say, I slept like a baby the rest of the day.
Want to know who sits where? Dive into visuals that break down what each team in the Mission Operations Center does.