HOUSTON — NASA’s unpiloted first test flight of the Orion crew capsule promises to turn a page for the control of human space flight, with upgrades and changes to the agency’s mission control center that build on lessons learned from Apollo through the space shuttle era.

The agency has slated Dec. 4 for the launch of Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, an uncrewed 6 1/2 hour flight with a Pacific Ocean splashdown off the California coast.

"Every program has its own culture, its own way of doing business," said Mike Sarafin, the 20-year NASA flight control room veteran assigned to serve as EFT-1 lead flight director. "I’ve worked shuttle and I’ve worked space station. There are things that each program does well and things that a different program does better. Orion is no exception."

The space agency and Lockheed Martin, the Orion prime contractor and lead for EFT-1, expect to emerge from the test flight with a better understanding of Orion’s heat shield, flight control systems and other elements designed to manage risks—much as NASA and North American Rockwell did from the uncrewed 1967 Apollo Saturn 501 flight that opened a pathway to the lunar surface for U. S. astronauts.

So far, much of the attention on NASA’s efforts to resume human deep-space exploration has been focused on Orion and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket that is in development for a second unpiloted test flight penciled in for late 2017, and subsequently, the first crewed demonstration mission. Orion will debut in Earth orbit atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, however, to accelerate risk and design assessments.

Though not as visible as work on the flight elements, upgrades to NASA’s Mission Control at Johnson Space Center here have been underway since the shuttle program’s retirement in 2011. The Mission Control Center for the 21st Century project is intended to set the stage for a U.S. human spaceflight comeback.

"We are learning and establishing that culture for the next mission," Sarafin said of efforts to prepare the space agency for eventual missions to the Martian environs. "We are also learning what Orion does really well and where it maybe needs a little bit of work to make it a better, safer and more capable spacecraft."

For EFT-1, Sarafin and his 24-member flight control team will work from the Blue Flight Control Room, the original flight control room for the International Space Station and the first of the control rooms scheduled to complete the MCC-21 overhaul. The makeover swept away blue metal computer consoles, replacing them with more spacious wood grain "commercial off the shelf" consoles, credenzas and larger computer displays bearing familiar brand names.

Disappearing are the central processing units that have driven the individual console displays once Mission Control weaned itself off the expensive custom mainframe computers in the mid-1990s that handled the spacecraft telemetry in the Apollo and early shuttle eras. The distributed data systems that replaced the mainframes are currently being replaced as part of "MCC 21" with a shared local data center architecture that will permit reconfigurations throughout the multiple MCC control rooms by updating a single computer box or with a single software load.

After the final shuttle flight, MCC began clearing away hundreds of user applications developed specifically for control of the orbiters. With the archiving effort, the number of flight control apps in MCC dropped from 1,700 to fewer than 700.

Johnson’s Mission Operations Directorate, which spent $20 million during each of the last three years on the operating system overhaul along with other efficiencies, expects to recoup the entire $60 million in the first year of full implementation alone. MCC procurements that once counted 1,300 workers for support at an annual cost of $200 million will decline to 450 workers by Oct. 1 and an annual cost of $100 million, according to NASA’s Dan Lindner, chief of the directorate’s Mission Systems Division.

A voice communications system that dates back nearly three decades to allow discussions among individual flight controllers on discrete loops is being replaced with new digital voice inter-communications equipment as part of a NASA-wide upgrade. A new "store" feature in the operating system will permit controllers to access a "time slice" of past operations of critical spacecraft subsystems that need additional scrutiny.

"The idea is that we are moving toward a quicker, more ready flight controller who can housekeep during their classic shift duties and spend more time on development activities," said Lindner, a former flight controller. "When the spacecraft has major scheduled or unscheduled events, you can bring in the specialists as needed."

While also increasing security, a constant human spaceflight concern, the local data center strategy will permit controllers to log in from their offices outside the control center as well.

"Security is very central to our design," said Troy Le- Blanc, Lindner’s deputy and a former flight controller as well. "We have a couple of racks of equipment in the new design whose sole purpose is to watch every packet that moves through the firewalls. When these guys access the system from their offices or elsewhere here in the control center they see the right data, with no additional traffic on the line."

MCC 21 will also afford the flexibility for two new visitor control rooms that can be used by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partners to fly their spacecraft to the ISS with astronauts. Boeing has already signed an agreement with NASA to do as much, if the company’s CST-100 capsule is selected for the final development phase.

That flexibility will also permit Lockheed Martin to lead EFT-1 using Harris Corp.’s OS/Comet off-the-shelf spacecraft command system with a Harris server in the control center rather than NASA’s full-up MCC 21 approach to future Orion operations.

Twelve hours ahead of the planned 8:03 a.m. EST liftoff of EFT-1, Rick LaBrode, another veteran NASA flight director, and a 24-member control team shift will enter the Blue FCR to prepare the room for the flight.

When Sarafin and his team take over, they will be linked into the Lockheed Martin-led Mission Management Team (MMT) chaired by Bryan Austin, a former NASA flight director, and gathered at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, not far from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 37, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV launch pad.

Austin will lead a "go/no-go" poll of all of the EFT-1 flight elements at a hold point with five minutes left in the countdown.

The launch will demonstrate a transfer of spacecraft control to MCC at liftoff, as was the custom with shuttle flights. Sarafin and his control team have been simulating the countdown procedures since last December, including the first joint simulation with the MMT in late May.

During the due East climb to orbit, limited Orion data will flow to the MCC through a series of ground stations on Merritt Island and at New Smyrna Beach, Florida, as well as the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. The inert Launch Abort System, positioned over Orion at liftoff like a shroud, is designed to separate at six minutes into flight, allowing the spacecraft’s antennas to establish a data link to MCC through NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. The satellite network was established during the shuttle era.

EFT-1 will be largely automated. Pre-flight programming will send the battery-powered spacecraft to an apogee of 3,600 mi. on the second orbit to set up re-entry conditions on the heat shield similar to those of a lunar mission return.

In MCC, Sarafin’s team will have two pre-planned opportunities to send commands, both associated with wider test objectives.

"We have a lot of capability that is there if we need it," he said. "But we don’t plan on using it if the vehicle performs as designed."

The first command opportunity comes at 60 min. into flight, when an onboard video recorder will be instructed to begin a playback of the Launch Abort System jettison as seen through a forward cabin window to demonstrate a downlink file transfer capability. The second will come moments before Orion plunges back into the Earth’s atmosphere at "entry interface," when the MCC will command Orion into an extended power up at splashdown.

Normally, the capsule would power down 15 min. after landing. The extension to 60 min. will enable engineers to gather data on the flow of heat from the spacecraft to the ocean waters. Temperature trends inside the cabin, including on the hatch—a fixture that astronauts might have to access quickly—will be logged.

"I’d love to have crew members on board," said Sarafin. "[But] the operations themselves, the culture and the mindset of operating is largely what we used and demonstrated since basically the dawn of human space flight. We still have the same protocol and team structure. Command of data that leaves the [MCC] is the responsibility of the flight director, and the team works for the flight director."