The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest peacetime engineering project in history. It is the result of a partnership between the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan. The Station provides a stable platform for microgravity and space research as well as a springboard for future space exploration.
While the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is the smallest ISS partner, its contribution to the program continues to be essential. The ISS structure itself could not have been assembled without Canada’s Mobile Servicing System, a sophisticated suite of robotics that includes Canadarm2 and Dextre. Even with assembly now complete, these Canadian robots provide critical support to on-going station maintenance and spacewalks and for capturing free flying cargo vehicles.
On December 19, 2012, Chris Hadfield launched to the ISS with two crewmates on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. He spent five months aboard the station on Canada’s second long-duration space mission and served as ISS Commander for his last two months in space – a significant first for Canada.
Preparing for an ISS expedition is an enormous undertaking requiring the talents of hundreds of people from across the partnership. One important aspect of CSA’s preparation for the Hadfield mission was to be ready to address any “contingency” that may have involved Chris. Such contingencies would have included any failure, medical issue or incident that could have led to injury, death, mission delay or early termination. It could also mean any off-nominal launch scenario, a ballistic (unusually steep) re-entry, an extended loss of communications with the crew, or even injury or illness of landing support personnel.
Development of a thoughtful and complete contingency action plan is the cornerstone of contingency preparation. Plans such as these are developed by ISS partner agencies well in advance of a launch.
CSA’s contingency action plan covered everything from identifying who had authority to make specific decisions to defining the right people to communicate with counterparts at other agencies. The plan also designated a Contingency Action Centre at the CSA headquarters – a dedicated, secure area with suitable resources to work the contingency in real-time. The heart of the document was the definition of roles and responsibilities for each CSA employee designated as a contingency responder. Individual responsibilities were presented in a user-friendly and concise checklist format to facilitate prompt and appropriate actions during what would likely be a stressful situation.
It is worth noting that CSA’s contingency action plan was not the plan for how to actually save the crew’s lives on a bad day. That responsibility was entrusted to the crew members themselves, to the real-time operations teams in the various control centers, and to the recovery teams deployed in the launch and landing zones. Instead this plan was written to ensure good coordination with the other agencies, and to ensure that CSA’s communications with the Canadian government, its international partner agencies, the media, the CSA’s own staff and even the crew member’s family, were timely, complete and accurate.
Well in advance of Hadfield’s launch (about 18 months) with a draft contingency plan in-hand, the CSA team conducted the first of seven tabletop simulations (or “sims”). Some of these were led by NASA’s Space & Life Sciences team, while a few CSA internal simulations were conducted and led by our own mission support team.
These tabletop simulations present hypothetical scenarios, developed to test the procedures and preparation of the team by exposing them to the thought-processes required on really bad days. Separated from the stress of an actual disaster, team members can calmly consider their options in a way they might not do otherwise. While sims don’t anticipate every possible emergency, they can identify some of the most likely ones, thereby providing an opportunity to exercise the methodology and communications interfaces that often apply.
The authors acted as “simulation supervisors” for the CSA-internal simulations. After deciding upon a scenario with specific learning objectives, scripts were developed for each simulation. Events in each scenario were triggered by a simulation supervisor issuing “green cards.” Each green card introduced a new failure or circumstance and were issued to participants as the simulation events unfolded.
This sequence of events tested the readiness of the team and allowed individual team members to exercise their designated responsibilities.
In addition to allowing team members to practice their roles and develop an operational mindset, simulations also educate the whole team on larger mission-wide issues. With everyone around the table hearing each step play out, each participant has the opportunity to hear and consider their colleagues’ challenges. Even specialized issues such as protection of crew member’s medical confidentiality can be presented. This broadens the team’s perspective. Ultimately simulations serve as wake-up calls, correcting pre-conceived notions and perhaps illustrating how existing plans are lacking.
Although props or play acting are not necessary, one way to support the realism of the simulation is to speak as if it’s really happening and not just hypothetical. The simple act of saying “I just” (did something) rather than “I would have”, can help everyone stay in the moment. Simulations are often more effective when the players feel emotionally, not just intellectually, engaged in the action.
In addition to operational staff, the participation of CSA senior executives was vital to the success of these activities. Their involvement added to the realism and seriousness of the event. Despite busy schedules, the executives themselves got to experience firsthand what was involved before signing off on the contingency plan document.
At the conclusion of each simulation, a debriefing session was held with all participants. Lessons learned from that day were discussed by the assembled team and documented: what went right or wrong; what additional information and resources would have been useful; how might we have better coordinated amongst ourselves. The answers to these questions were then incorporated back into the plan, refining it through operational experience, long before the rocket engines lit.
Thankfully Hadfield’s mission was a complete success. Chris landed safely with his two Soyuz crewmates on the Kazakh Steppe on May 13, 2013, completing an ISS expedition with few malfunctions and no major contingencies. In fact, the mission set records for both productivity and public outreach.
Nevertheless, if something had gone wrong, the CSA team was well-trained, confident and resourced to respond quickly and appropriately.
This process is iterative and allows for on-going improvements. Enhancing the quality of each simulation (e.g., scripting to test multiple mission requirements; detailed realism) pays dividends in identifying process improvements to feed back into the contingency plan.
Any business continuity plan can benefit from these same principles. While we always hope for the best, we also prepare for the worst. By developing the best possible business continuity plan, then testing and exercising that plan with tabletop simulations, a basic contingency management capability emerges.