on daily maintenance procedures like changing
out filters and making sure the toilet is functioning
properly, as well as in specialized procedures for
installing and activating new modules of the Station.
OSOs are on console at ISS Mission Control, providing technical support, and are on call for emergencies onboard the ISS. On the Space Shuttle side of
Mission Control are In-Flight Maintenance Flight
Directors (IFMs), who provide similar training and
support to the shuttle crews.
The OSO and IFM teams have their roots in the
Apollo program, specifically Apollo 13, when flight
controllers had to quickly come up with solutions
for modifying carbon dioxide scrubbers in the Lunar
Module when the Service Module was damaged by
an oxygen tank explosion and crew members had to
abandon the Command Module to take refuge in the
Lunar Module. Using only materials the astronauts
were known to have on hand, flight controllers
fashioned a modified scrubber and then radioed the
build instructions up to the crew. Materials included
a sock and duct tape.
In 2007, Martin and the other OSO flight controllers had to come up with a solution to repair
a torn solar array on the ISS and devised, in just
a few days, a fix that would normally have taken
months of planning and procedure writing. Using
wire known to be in storage onboard the ISS, they
devised a set of “cufflinks” to mend the tear in the
solar array. Martin says the experience was intense
“It’s like Apollo 13,” she says. “We sit down and
say, ‘OK, this didn’t work. It wasn’t designed right —
so what do we have onboard that we can fix it with?’
It’s so much fun.”
The massive Building 9 at Johnson Space Center
houses full-sized mock-ups of the individual ISS
modules, and serves as a place not only for training
but also troubleshooting during missions.
“We’ll be in the middle of a shuttle mission and
something doesn’t work, so you’ll have four OSOs
sitting over there at 3 a.m. trying to figure out what
to do,” Martin explains.
She says flight controllers are great at the art of
prioritizing properly, and asking the right questions to
best determine how and when a problem onboard
the ISS can be fixed.
“Things go wrong all the time — it’s just a matter of the business,” she says. “But during critical
timelines, like during a shuttle mission, where you
have to do things by a certain time or it can affect
the next EVA [extravehicular activity], it’s all about
criticality, knowing how long we have to figure out
a solution and what course of action we can take.
Sometimes the answer is that we have to fly a new
piece of hardware up on the next shuttle mission.”
OSOs don’t just address emergencies, though.
They also research and write intricate procedures
for operations such as installing new modules, and
then train the astronauts on how to carry out those
incredibly detailed lists of instructions. Every time
a new module is launched to the ISS, the OSOs are
involved in developing all the outfitting procedures
to attach it and get it up and running.
Martin headed up the procedure development
for the installation of the Cupola module, the “bay
window on the Earth” that was launched on STS- 130
in February 2010.
“It’s like Apollo 13.
We sit down and
say, ‘OK, this didn’t
work. It wasn’t
designed right —
so what do we have
onboard that we
can fix it with?’
It’s so much fun.”
“I worked for months on that module,” she says.
“And to see those window shutters finally open was
Martin began with a list of tasks necessary to
get the Cupola up and running and the software
working, but she had to determine the proper order
in which those steps had to occur and then train
the crew on exactly how to carry them out while on
orbit. It’s a high-stakes DIY tutorial.
“Imagine someone giving you a list of what has to
be done to fix a car, and you’re sitting there with this
list trying to do it,” she says. “That shows you how
important the procedures have to be. They have to
have good pictures, clear instructions.”
Rachel Hobson is a hand embroidery-obsessed crafter
and writer with a passion for outer space and all things
geektastic. She is a staff writer for CRAFT (
and has her own blog,