Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mission Control- the story of overnights

As I've alluded to already, I work in Mission Control for the International Space Station. If you've ever seen Apollo 13, its kinda like that but a little more 2011 than 1969. Instead of old rotary phones and tube screens, we have Linux computers and rows of monitors. Controlling the space station is done not by a joystick, but by packets of computer code sent from the ground computers to the onboard computers telling it to do things. The ISS is up there above your head right now, making 16 orbits around the earth each day, with 3 people (an American, a Russian, and a Japanese crewmember) onboard. Because the ISS is in orbit and manned 247/7, we also must man the control center 24/7. There are about 15 people certified to sit at my console (the electrical power system- we keep the lights on!), so we all rotate through the three shifts a day, week in and week out.
Since there are a bunch of us, I spend some of my time in the office (regular 8am to 5pm hours), pushing paperwork, training newbies, going to meetings etc. But I also spend some of my time on either the overnight shift (11pm to 8am) or the evening shift (3pm to midnight). This week I am working the overnight shift.

As you can probably imagine, switching from a regular workday shift to the overnight is not particularly easy. Because I have office responsibilities during the weeks I'm not on console, I usually only get a day to turn my schedule around.

To shift onto the overnight schedule, I stay up as late as I can the night before (which is like 2am if I'm lucky). I then get a couple hours of shuteye before getting up to do stuff around the house from 6 to 9am. Usually I cook myself a casserole and do other food prep so I'll have easy to pack lunches during the week. When 9am rolls around I take an Ambien and go back to bed for as long as I can. This usually buys me another 6 hours of sleep. Then I get up, often have dinner/breakfast with my bf, sometimes take another nap right before work, and head off to work at 10:30.
Day 1 is ok (that was last night) because I actually get more sleep in the 24 hours before than any other time. Day 2 blows- usually I still only get 6 or so hours that day, but without the benefit of getting some bonus rest the previous night. This Day 2 (tonight) is going to be especially difficult because at 2am the clocks will bounce back to 1am. While you're enjoying your extra hour of sleep, I'll be enjoying an extra hour of overnight shift.

Since this is a fitness blog I'll tell you that overnights are pretty difficult for diet and exercise. For the first couple days I'm hungry during the day when I sleep, and wake up starving. I usually eat dinner for breakfast (which is at dinner time) instead of my usual breakfast of waffles and almond butter. Today this backfired, and my stomach has been kind of upset since starting the night with Chili's chips and queso. I'll eat my casserole at some point tonight, and I brought a couple snacks as well. Then I'll grab a breakfast (cereal or freezer waffles) when I get home before I head back to bed.
As for exercise, on the first few days I just do NOT have the energy to exercise. Sleep shifting takes days, and though I may have had enough sleep (today's 7 hours is not too shabby) my body still does not want to be awake in the middle of the night. I have tried to exercise on previous shifts and really regret it when the 5am crash comes around. Tomorrow (sunday night), day 3, I should be ready for a short run with my bf in the evening. And Monday morning after work I hope to hit yoga after my shift, before bed.

Aside from the negatives of sleep shifting, it really is alot of fun to work in Mission Control. Small failures are like a puzzle or a mystery, to be figured out and fixed. Routine ops can be interesting as well. And though I sit in a windowless room we do have camera downlinks from the external cameras which show the earth sail by below and my shiny golden (actually quite beautiful) solar arrays tracking the sun overhead. That plus 4 sunrises and sunsets a shift is pretty incredible. Here's the view from the Spartan console. I'll explain the Gremlin another day.

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