Space Station Science Payload Operations Continue Amid Pandemic

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir works on a media change for the Engineered Heart Tissues investigation inside the Life Sciences Glovebox. (Credits: NASA)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (NASA PR) — The International Space Station Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is the heartbeat of space station science research  operations. As NASA’s primary space station science command post, the payload operations team coordinates scientific and commercial experiments on the station, synchronizes payload activities of international partners and directs communications between researchers around the world and their onboard experiments.

On March 29, as Marshall responded to the coronavirus pandemic and began transitioning operations to Stage 4 in the NASA response framework, the real-time links between the space station crew and scientists around the world continued to enable ongoing research on the space station.

“Our payload operations facility is the nerve center for all the science that occurs daily on the space station,” said Joseph Pelfrey, acting payload operations cost account manager and deputy manager for the Human Exploration Development & Operations Office at Marshall. “We are mission-critical in the agency’s execution of science research, and I am proud of the team for continuing to rise to the challenge during this time.”

“We’ve not missed a beat, operationally,” said Mike Shell, Expedition 62 payload operations manager. “We have maintained a regular science and crew schedule without any change to our science plan as a result of the COVID-19 event.”

The payload operations team achieved about 46 hours of science the week of March 16, 50 hours the week of March 23, and continued with 40 hours during the week of March 30.  Beginning April 6, the team conducted 24 hours of science and prepared for the arrival of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three additional crew members — all within the scope of normal science operations. These hours include operations for NASA and its international partners.

Additionally, the team delivered commands to operate science payloads on the station. Science payloads such as MVP02, a study involving specialized heart muscle cells, and engineering heart tissue were studied on station during this time. According to Shell, the team downlinked an average of 1,052GB per day of science data during this time — almost 15TB.  

To help the crew in orbit conduct record amounts of scientific study, the operations center is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Marshall’s move to Stage 4 reduced the number of employees supporting payload operations from 30 flight and ground control team members, scheduled over three daily shifts, to 24 team members. Other team members are available on an on-call basis.

“Our payload operations group already has that team mentality and they believe in it,” said Bobby Watkins, manager of the Human Exploration Development & Operations Office. “Their team mentality is essential to mission success as Marshall continues to conduct science operations during this pandemic.”

NASA is closely adhering to the CDC’s recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus. This includes cleaning of surfaces, physical distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, limiting social contact whenever possible and asking NASA team members who are sick to stay home, even if they would otherwise fall into the telework exceptions.