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Mission Control from Home for the First Time
How Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus Team Overcame COVID-19 Challenges to Meet Critical Customer Needs
Many Northrop Grumman employees have adapted to working from home offices, kitchen tables and even their couches during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cygnus operations team — which recently celebrated one year of continued operation of a Cygnus spacecraft — is no exception.
The Cygnus system is a flight-proven spacecraft used to carry crew supplies, equipment and scientific experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). Under normal circumstances, Cygnus operations are conducted by a team of engineers and scientists in Northrop Grumman’s Mission Operations Center (MOC) 4 in Dulles, Virginia, where the team works collaboratively and monitors data at computer stations. To observe social distancing, in light of COVID-19, the team came up with an innovative solution that reduced the number of people in the MOC and allowed them to continue mission operations from their homes.
“It has been challenging to establish ways of flying a spacecraft with some of the crew no longer in the control room, but in spaceflight, you have to become used to dealing with the unexpected,” said Paul Brower, Cygnus mission director. “Like many of the challenges we face in trying to explore new frontiers, we faced this obstacle with a pioneering spirit by taking advantage of our technology and resources to get the job done as safely as possible.”
Getting the Cygnus operations team set up to work outside of the MOC was only one piece of the puzzle. Social distancing and travel restrictions also made it challenging for NASA’s Saffire team — which performs large-scale fire safety experiments on ISS resupply vehicles — to conduct experiments onboard Cygnus after it departed from the station on May 11, 2020.
These experiments require close coordination, so they started simply: the first at-home mission was to reconfigure heaters onboard Cygnus a few weeks prior to it leaving the ISS.
With the help of software and network specialists, Cygnus’ data was securely transferred to the operations team through the company’s virtual private network (VPN), which allowed them to access telemetric displays from a remote location. A phone and tablet app enabled the team to replicate the headsets they normally use to communicate with each other in the MOC. Paul was able to send commands from MOC 4, supported by an engineer who monitored the mission remotely with a voice app.
A few weeks later, this same remote setup enabled the Saffire team to successfully conduct their combustion experiments on May 12 with the Cygnus operations team’s remote support.
“The goal of the Cygnus operations team is to achieve mission success for our customers, regardless of the situation. The team has found a way, working with our NASA colleagues, to ensure the remainder of the Cygnus mission, including the Saffire experiment, was a success,” said Tony Foti, operations manager, Cygnus. “The key to resolving complicated situations is communication and coordination. The relationship between our team and our NASA colleagues was critical to making this effort a success.”
While it won’t always be possible for the Cygnus operations team to be absent from the MOC, being able to access the data from their homes will help keep many of Northrop Grumman’s essential employees safe and healthy by allowing them to maintain social distancing and minimize their contact with others while also performing on the program.