UofT grad becomes 14th Canadian to earn robotics flight controller certification
Kristen Facciol will be sitting "on console," when David Saint-Jacques departs for the international space station on December 3.
As a child, Kristen Facciol attended a space camp in Laval Quebec, and her favorite movie was Apollo 13. Growing up she knew the space industry existed but had no clue how to be a part of it. Jump ahead to today and not only has Facciol navigated a career in the space industry, she’s become the 14th Canadian in history to earn the coveted position of robotics flight controller for the International Space Station (ISS).
Graduating with a degree in applied science with a major in aerospace engineering from the University of Toronto in 2009, Facciol took a job with MDA, a subsidiary of the Maxar group, the company responsible for the Canadarm and its recent compatriot the Canadarm2.
At MDA, Facciol quickly made an impression, playing a role on the systems engineering team for the next-generation Canadarm project (NGC). Focused on satellite servicing for systems that were already on-orbit, the NGC developed different operational concepts for robotic technologies that could extend the useful lifetime of satellites by refueling or refurbishing them, servicing both manned and unmanned space infrastructure.
“From the outset, it was helping define the system requirements and then breaking those down into the subsystem levels. One of my roles throughout was doing the requirement tracking through integration testing and all of the verification of those requirements,” Facciol says. “I also worked a bit with the embedded software team on all of the commanding capabilities that we would have with the new cameras.“
After working with a team on the graphical user interface for the system and demonstrating the project when it was finished, Facciol was approached by her manager – a new position had opened up. Stepping into real-time flight support for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Facciol moved from the private to public sector, starting in the analysis group developing some of the reconfiguration files for the control systems aboard ISS.
Eventually, Facciol moved to the engineering support lead role, sitting “on console” and supporting the flight controller group. “I kept thinking that ‘this is pretty awesome that I get to support them, but it would be great one day if I could be one of the people who was sending the commands.’”
In a broad pop-culture context, think of the flight controller group and sitting “on console” as those groups of people sitting at banks of computers, often starting a giant screen in every Hollywood space depiction. While obviously exaggerated and often laughable, the visual depiction (seen below) is similarly high-tech.
After being hired full-time by the CSA, Facciol spent with time human research group—trying to better understand the dynamics of space adaptation and better predict health risks linked to deep-space missions—before shifting into a role as a payload engineer for all of the science experiments that are done inside the ISS.
It’s here where Facciol was approached by the manager of the robotics group for the CSA.
“He said ‘Hey are you missing robotics? Was it something you want to get back into? Because we’re going to be looking to staff a new flight controller position,’” Facciol says. “I thought ‘Okay I never thought that I would have this opportunity, and I absolutely need to take it,’ so I did.”
As a robotics flight controller, Facciol’s responsibilities include executing robotics procedures, meeting mission objectives and actual commanding the systems. More specifically, in an exercise planned for the David St. Jacques mission (which hit an unfortunate snag recently), an upgrade to some of the cameras and wireless network on the ISS is to take place.
Facciol and the team are responsible for designing all of those procedures in advance and running them through simulations in the neutral buoyancy lab which is the big pool with the ISS mockup. “Sometimes we’ll run the designs through virtual reality to make sure everything works and makes sense,” she says.
The ground team is split into two groups: Engineering support and flight control. The flight control team generally consists of three people: A robotics officer, or ROBO, who leads the team by coordinating robotics activities and assigning task priorities; the systems officer, who supports the ROBO and anticipates problems to develop emergency procedures and a task officer, who supports the systems officer and keeps flight notes.
Facciol serves as Task Officer for the Mobile Service System on the upcoming Saint-Jacques mission.
The training required for Facciol’s position, took her to Houston Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) named after U.S president Lyndon B. Johnson. The purpose of JSC training is to get flight controllers—especially Canadians who work remotely—familiar with the way the flight operations director works, providing face time with a team Facciol will only have communication with over telephones and computer screens.
“It’s also to get a feel of what it’s like to be a part of mission control and the way operations are done here,” Facciol says. “We also go through, a series of courses in other disciplines so you get familiar with all of the subsystems on the space station instead of just focusing on robotics.”
To earn her certification, Facciol went through a year-long training process which culminated in a simulated spacewalk exercise where Facciol had to work through a series of obstacles and anomalies with other teams in real-time.
During her time at JSC, Facciol had a stark celebrity-inspired reminder as to why she’s wanted to be a part of this industry for so long. “I bumped into Nick Hague and I was just thinking ‘Oh my gosh.’ He was all over the news with that recent that recent launch failure and you’re thinking ‘this is something that impacted so many people,’ and was such a visible event you get to experience first hand which is pretty cool,” she says.
For context, In October Hague was supposed to make a journey to ISS for a six-month stint. Instead, a rocket booster failure sent him and his team falling back to earth.
Returning home next year, Facciol will be working from the Robotics Mission Control Centre in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. The team and Facciol are also responsible for configuring the setup operations, powering up the Canadarm system and getting it into its start configuration. Once the astronaut takes over control of the arm and Facciol will monitor and support those operations.
When asked about what she thinks helped her stand out amongst her peers to land the role of robotics flight controller, Facciol points to her enthusiasm for learning everything she could about not only her job but the roles around her as well. “They knew that I had learned as much as I could about the job in order to do my previous job effectively. I think that it was kind of that passion and dedication, that they were like ‘okay she wants this.’
And when the topic of Hollywood depictions of space comes up, Facciol is pretty generous in her critique “Even the Martian I found was pretty accurate and it’s totally far-fetched. I enjoyed watching it.” But when it comes to a Hollywood narrative that left her frustrated, Facciol and astrophysicist/folk hero extraordinaire, Neil Degrasse Tyson, share a common opinion “The only time that I’ve felt really kind of frustrated by a space movie was Gravity. The physics made no sense.”