Bridging two worlds - Canadian Astronauts as Capcoms

Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronaut David Saint-Jacques in the Capcom seat at NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. July 26, 2013. (Credit: NASA Astronaut Douglas Wheelock)

Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronaut Jeremy Hansen congratulates Chris Hadfield for his tenure as the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station (ISS) during the on-orbit transfer of command ceremony between Hadfield and Russia's Pavel Vinogradov. May 12, 2013. (Credit: NASA TV screen capture by the CSA)

Since the start of the Canadian Astronaut Program over twenty five years ago, Canadian astronauts have donned the role of Capcom in NASA's Mission Control Centre located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Capcom, or capsule communicator, is a term originating from the early Mercury missions that sent the first Americans into space in small capsules.

A Capcom bridges the worlds of the Flight Control team in Mission Control with that of the orbiting astronauts. Their chief role is to relay to the astronauts the conclusions the Flight Director has made in consultation with the very technical Flight Control team. As time is always at a premium during space missions, the Capcom must choose their words carefully, mindful of the need for precision and correctness but also of the importance of brevity. In a sense, a Capcom's dispatches are like verbal tweets, condensing complex information into comprehensible, concise packets of info.

Communication, of course, goes two ways. Capcoms also represent the orbiting crew. As they are typically astronauts themselves, they can put themselves in the shoes (or socks!) of the mission crew. Situational awareness permits the Capcoms to express the needs of the crew in a very fluid, diplomatic manner. As Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who has been Capcom for Expeditions 34, 35 and now 36 puts it, the Capcom is an "ambassador" for the astronauts, representing them in the best light possible.

For astronauts like Saint-Jacques who have not yet flown, assuming the role of Capcom is an ideal way to gain real mission experience. Astronauts who have been Capcoms before a flight see how decisions are reached on the ground, giving them greater insight into the communications process as a whole when they are in orbit. An astronaut who has served as a Capcom is more likely to ask the most relevant questions.

To cover International Space Station (ISS) operations, Capcoms are required 24/7. A typical day will consist of three shifts, and since there are not necessarily enough astronauts to fill all these hours, there are several professional Capcoms trained specifically for the role. Becoming a Capcom can take about three to six months of training, and involves simulations in a mock flight control room with virtual teams representing Russia and Europe. Instructors will create worst-case scenarios for the prospective Capcoms to deal with, and after they become adept in these situations, they will be eased into real flight control room operations.

During Expedition 38, Saint-Jacques will be lead Capcom for the first time. On top of his regular duties, he will take on an administrative role of making sure every shift is covered, that all technical equipment in the flight control room is in good working order, and will be responsible for keeping management informed and updated of Capcom-to-crew communications. CSA Astronaut Jeremy Hansen, who has served as Capcom during Expeditions 34 and 35, also had the opportunity to helm communications during a spacewalk. He will continue to work in flight control, as the two current CSA astronauts prepare for their own future missions that will take them to the other side of ground-to-space communications.