NASA executive keeps mission operations flying high

Dolly Perkins sits in her office and quietly describes the electric feeling of suspense that envelops NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center during a launch.

Walking down the hall, "you can feel people are very intent," Perkins said. "They can be very anxious. If you're in the control room, there's tension. It's a very intense period."

Goddard conducts mission operations for Earth-orbiting robotic spacecraft supporting Earth and space science. Goddard controlled the launch of the X-Ray Timing Explorer and the Solar Heliospheric Observatory last December. This July, Goddard controlled the launch of the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer-Earth Probe.

Perkins has never sat in front of a console as a control specialist, but her work has just as much to do with launching and operating a craft in flight. As chief of the Mission Operations and Systems Development Division at Goddard, she leads the design, development, operation and maintenance of the Goddard mission operations centers.

The pulse of excitement she describes will never die down in the Goddard mission operations centers, Perkins said. However, one image that most people associate with control centers - that of a phalanx of specialists seated in front of mission control consoles around the clock - will change. Perkins is leading the effort at Goddard to automate mission operations so that more computers and fewer humans do the work of flying the craft.

'Lights Out' Operations

"In the end, you try to imagine no one in the control room. It's called 'lights out' operations," Perkins said. "For the big missions," such as any manned mission or a complex instrument such as the Hubble Space Telescope, "you'll always need people. But you've got to find a way to get the spacecraft not to need as much attention. And you have to find a way to automate the ground control so it doesn't need as much staff. This is where the advanced technology comes in."

Perkins' division is developing a variety of advanced technology systems that use fuzzy logic, rule-based reasoning, 3-D visualization and virtual environments to automate proc-esses and increase the amount of input that a human operator can absorb.

In Perkins' division, for example, you'll find the new WAVE lab. Shorthand for World Wide Web Technology, Advanced Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Environments and Explorations, the WAVE lab provides a test bed for developing and testing new tools and concepts for mission operations.

Anticipated tools developed at the WAVE lab will render images of spacecraft in real-time 3-D and full color. Colors and symbols that appear on the virtual craft will alert operators to problems. Other systems will detect anomalies and correct them without human assistance.

But advanced technology development makes up only a slice of the work carried out in Perkins' division. A growing portion of the technology that is used in mission control comes from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software and computers.

"If you look at some of the earlier missions, they were uniquely done," Perkins said. More and more, Goddard reuses components - based upon existing NASA-developed technology or COTS technology - for multiple missions. "Since then, the development costs have been driven down dramatically," she said.

In addition, Goddard is working to give controllers the freedom to control a craft or an instrument from outside the mission control room, Perkins said. The Internet has made this possible.

"The networks are very powerful, but the downside is security. We want to be able to control a spacecraft from a university, but our job needs us to protect the asset," she said.

Ultimately, cost savings mean more money can go to actual experiments. "We're trying to enable an increase in the science," Perkins said.

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