Kids depend on their parents and guardians for care, support, and guidance—and their importance in the lives of children is often celebrated with designated days, like Mother’s Day on Sunday May 9th; NASA missions are no different and have MOMs of their own. MOM is NASA speak for Mission Operation Managers. A NASA MOM manages all the activities associated with communicating with the spacecraft and keeping it safe and healthy.
Most space missions have at least one MOM on their team. However, OSIRIS-REx (NASA Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, needed three. “It’s not easy to maneuver a spacecraft near an asteroid and to orbit it safely,” said Andrew Calloway, the OSIRIS-REx Mission Operations Manager (MOM) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The nature and the complexity of this mission calls us to have more people.”
OSIRIS-REx became the first-ever NASA mission to travel to an asteroid and collect a sample for study back on Earth. OSIRIS-REx broke records for the closest-ever orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft. After two years orbiting asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx collected its sample in October 2020 and is preparing to begin the journey home.
Andrew Calloway, Nayi Castro, and Devin Poland make up NASA Goddard’s OSIRIS-REx three-MOM team. They work closely with all elements of the project nationwide to make sure the spacecraft remains safe and is thriving as it conducts its science observations of asteroid Bennu.
Based in Maryland, Arizona, Colorado, and California, OSIRIS-REx team members generate multiple weekly products for the spacecraft to operate and maneuver precisely around Bennu. The widely distributed team was a challenge for the MOMs, and became particularly difficult during COVID 19.
The three OSIRIS-REx MOMS were essential to cover the “late updates” performed several times per week. The process provides the spacecraft with the most up-to-date navigation and trajectory information, essential for the precision flying and science observations close to the asteroid. It is a quick-turnaround, orchestrated sequence of events performed over 24 hours to compute new command parameters and get them uplinked to the spacecraft.
“We touch all four teams; navigation, flight dynamics, spacecraft operations and science teams within 24 hours,” Poland said. “Then the flight team uplinked those products to the spacecraft, only hours before the spacecraft does the maneuver.”
The updates spanned second and third shifts along with many weekends. “Late updates were a big stressor for the entire operations team, because there were so many of them performed over two plus years of proximity operations at Bennu,” said Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at Goddard. “The three MOMs were an essential part of the coordination that was necessary for this process to work.”
The mission completed ‘107’ late updates and hundreds more navigation late updates during its operations at Bennu.
The MOMs have developed a close working relationship with each other and the team members around the country. “Each manager brings a different strength and diverse perspective and background to the project,” Calloway said. “This was crucial for solving some of the most complex problems on the mission.”
Both Calloway and Castro supported mid- and long-term planning for the mission. Poland took care of the day-to-day flight operations focusing on technical requirements.
Calloway joined NASA Goddard’s OSIRIS-REx team five months prior to launch in April 2016, on loan from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in neighboring Laurel, Maryland, under an inter-agency agreement. Calloway was a MOM on NASA’s Mercury MESSENGER mission for eight years and a core team member of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Calloway’s experience was a complementary asset to OSIRIS-REx since Castro and Poland were first-time MOMs on the project. Poland has worked at Goddard for 10 years on various flight projects. He supports OSIRIS-REx’s day-to-day flight operations reviewing the multiple products generated by OSIRIS-REx teams.
Castro joined the team in 2018 as the spacecraft was approaching asteroid Bennu. She has worked on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft and also works with the Deep Space Network (DSN), scheduling time to upload and download data and monitor critical events. OSIRIS-REx shares the network with other missions. It was difficult to negotiating with different missions to get OSIRIS-REx enough time on the network for the late updates.
At times, emergencies with the DSN tested the MOMs’ skills, but it also illustrated why OSIRIS-REx needs three MOMs. A facility of the Deep Space Network near Madrid had a network outage that stopped a late update. The mission team could not complete the first step: downloading data from the spacecraft. DSN time was ticking away, reducing their communication time with the spacecraft.
The team did not want to lose their opportunity for a critical update and the subsequent observations. If they did, it would delay the next flyover and ultimately delay the asteroid sample collection maneuver. The team found a way to condense the 24-hour ‘late update’ into 4 hours with all hands-on deck. The team named this update the “super late update”.
The mission team conducted the process successfully, allowing OSIRIS-REx to complete that important flyover of a potential sample site.
As OSIRIS-REx’s time at Bennu comes to an end so does the need for a three-MOM team. The MOMs have completed the most challenging phases of the mission with the exception of return to Earth in 2023. The final flyby of Bennu occurred on April 7, 2021.
Following the successful sample collection, Calloway has returned to the Applied Physics Laboratory after five years on the team. Castro was promoted to OSIRIS-REx lead MOM and oversaw the mission’s last flyover of Bennu. Poland continues to provide technical support to OSIRIS-REx and has transitioned to be the MOM for another NASA asteroid mission, named Lucy. NASA plans to launch Lucy in September 2021.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.
Last Updated: May 7, 2021
Editor: Lynn Jenner