Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Designing Spacecraft for RPGs: Crew as Mission Control?

          As promised, I'm actually writing one another installment in one of our on-going series here at Blue Max Studios.  It was tough deciding whether or not to put this one in Designing Plausible Spacecraft or as one of our articles on the Missile Craft, but I think this applies to spacecraft in general, and not necessarily just IPVs.  We'll see.

          The topic of today's post was inspired, like many other ideas, by Rick Robinson's blog Rocketpunk Manifesto.  In this particular post of Rick's, he suggests that a plausible spacecraft of tomorrow will be staffed by a crew that functions more like the present-day Mission Control than the daring rocketeers of yesteryear's fiction.  I immediately liked this idea, since the Black Desert setting has computers and AI that can perform most of the functions of modern-day astronauts faster, more accurately, and above all else cheaper (in both terms of cost and consumables) than organic spacers could.

          The first thing we need to do is find out exactly what the people at Mission Control today do; what positions need to be filled?  I did some digging on Ye Olde Internet and found this website, which outlines NASA's current line-up in, as they call it, The Trench.  NASA's Mission Control is full of nifty acronyms, but the tasks performed by the various controllers will be for the most part as valid in the twenty-third century as they are today.  I've done some fiddling with the crew positions I've already come up with for Black Desert and those used by Mission Control, and have come up with the following list of possible crew positions that an IPV or space station would have in a future where navigation, piloting and many other traditional occupations are all automated.

           Let's take a look:

        There are four senior flight directors at the top of the food-chain in our BD Mission Control.  They are:
  • Mission Commander (MCOM):  This is the overall director of the entire operation, whether it's directing a combat task force or leading a convoy into the Asteroid Belt.  This is the Big Boss; the equivalent of a General (Air Force Commander) or an Admiral (Task Force Commander).
  • Flight Commander (Flight): This is the directer of the spacecraft itself; the one directly in charge of supervising all aspects of the ship's preparedness and it's ability to perform the mission MCOM outlines.  This is the traditional Captain or, in Air Force parlance, the Group Commander (for an IPV) or, of course, a Captain of a Naval Vessel.  All spacecraft have a Flight Commander.  That being said, only the IPV Commander is "Flight" the Flight Commander of any subordinate spacecraft are called "Commander", "FCOM" or "Skip", depending on that organization's traditions.
  • Integrated Communications Officer (INCO): This is the supervisor that is in charge of all exterior and interior communications.  This person is the bridge between all of the spacecraft's different computers and personnel and the two senior commanders.  In addition, this director handles the inevitable administration details and discipline among the other departments. This is the equivalent of an XO position and is occasionally referred to as such.
  • Flight Engineer (Chief):  This supervisor, as the title suggests, is in charge of all the engineering systems of a spacecraft.  On an IPV or in a space station, there will be separate directors for the fusion reactor, maintenance, electrical, and all that jazz.  On a smaller rocket, this individual will be do it all.
         On large spacecraft, there will be four departments under the Command department that perform additional tasks:  COMAST, Engineering, Life-Support, and Payload.  We'll look at each in turn.

         COMAST:  This is an abbreviation of Communication and Astrogation.
  • Guidance Procedures Officer (GPO):  This officer monitors the navigation of the spacecraft.  Basically, they constantly check the guidance control software in order to make sure its working properly and not glitched or fooled by electronic warfare.  Often simply called "Guidance".
  • Guidance, Navigation and Control Systems Engineer (GNC): This directer is responsible for all of the hardware involved in their title.  This includes flight computers, radar, lidar and flir sensors, the spacecrafts RCS, and all of the connections between these elements.  They mostly direct robots and perform spot inpections.
  • Spacecraft Communications (SCOM): Still called CAPCOM in the US, this officer is the direct communicator between a spacecraft and their axillary elements.  For IPVs, this means any spacecraft attached to the craft or docking/undocking.
           The next department is Engineering.  The need for this department should be obvious.

  • Propulsion Engineer (Prop): This dude's in charge of gas.  On most military craft, they monitor the water tanks, electrolyzers, LOX and LH2 tanks, all the connecting hoses, the cryogenics and all that stuff.  They also keep track of how much Delta-V the spacecraft has left.
  • Booster Engineer (Booster): This is the officer that monitors the spacecraft's L-Drive and Plasma Sails.  They also make sure that the radiators are in working order and the laser generators can provide combat power if needed.
  • Fusion Reactor and Electrical Engineer (FREE): Despite the acronym, this operator is anything but.  They monitor the fusion plant, the helium 3 supplies, radiation levels and all of the electrical sub-systems and lighting on the spacecraft.  Again, this is a job for robots with the FREE performing spot-checks.
            The Payload department is not only concerned with cargo, though that is a big part of their job.  These operators also oversee a spacecraft's fighting ability.

  • Payload Officer (PLO/Payload): This is really the weapons officer, but they are called "PLO" for the same reasons the chief communicator is still "CAPCOM" long after the use of capsules.  If a spacecraft is armed, this is the person who directs the weapons systems.  
  • Payload Deployment and Retrieval Officer (PDRS):  This person actually monitors the loading and unloading of cargo.  Robots do all the work.  This  "Cargo Master" also makes sure that the cargo is balanced so the rocket doesn't fall off it's tail.
  • Maintenance, Mechanical Arms, and Crew Systems Officer (MMACS): "Max" is another holdover name; the term now denotes the officer that oversees the maintenance of all of the spacecraft's robots, robotic arms, and associated systems.
         Last but certainly not least, we have the Life-Support department.  If they don't work, you don't live.

  • Environmental Consumables Manager (ECM): The ECM makes sure that there is enough food, water, atmosphere and heat to keep the crew alive.  Anything to do with food storage, air-srubbers, water faucets and air vents falls under their supervision.
  • Closed-Ecology Life-Support Systems (CLESS): If a spacecraft or station has a closed-loop system, there will be a CLESS to oversee it.  Hydroponics, algae tanks, urine recycling, and making sure all that nature does not get out of hand is their chief responsibility.  A ship with a CLESS and a good officer to monitor it can feed and support it's crew for years without resupply.  
  • Flight Surgeon (Doc): Obviously, this is the spacecraft's medical officer.  They inspect for cleanliness, diseases and radiation.  In the event of injury, they are expected to deal with anything from eczema to explosive decompression.
          If you're keeping count, that's 16 staff positions for a fully crewed Mission Control.  If we want to keep the same number of crew for our Missile Craft that we had already,  we add four more people; an extra Engineer, LSO, PLO and an Emergency Pilot, for when the Avionics are fried by a laser or EW.  Of course, we will double this amount, in the spirit of redundancy.

          Computers being what they are, you will only need the full crew on duty during combat or other intensive situations, so under standard conditions, we'll have only one crew member per department on duty at a time.  This gives us a watch bill with six four-hour shifts.  One of the command staff will be in charge of each watch, with the exception of the MCOM and their deputy.  Flights one and two will get either 1st and 2nd watch, or more likely 1st and 4th, with each mission control team taking half a day.  After their four hours in Mission Control, the crew will take an additional four hours doing maintenance and inspections in their areas of responsibility.

         That's all I got on this topic right now, RocketFans.  Comments are always welcome.


  1. I've considered the Mission Control Onboard model for future spacecraft before--it seems that, for instance, an exploration spacecraft in even the near-future would have to have on-board procedures and monitoring people as soon as the communications lag to Earth exceeds the shortest reaction time imaginable for a crisis--so, maybe a maximum of about 20 seconds (under than, and it's probably something an automatic system will be programmed to watch for instead to undertake a pre-determined action, not make an actual decision). this means if you want to go further than the Sun-Earth Lagrange points, I think that the emergency decision-making does indeed have to be more on-board the ship.

    Starting from there, it makes sense that this structure of command of the ship being a form of on-board mission control could evolve into the system you describe for warships in your settings. It seems like you largely cover the major roles, and integrate the ship command structure and the traditional mission control center roles pretty well.

    However, a few stick out as being a little un-natural, or hard to imagine being clear to say over a comm loop in a crisis. First, I think "Systems" works better for the GNC than GNC--they're not actual guiding anything, just monitoring the systems. I'd recommend (SYS/Systems) instead of (GNC). Better describes the role and decreases overlap with Guidance.

    Booster--might be better called Drive. First, he's handling the drive systems and related stuff. Second, Drive is one syllable. However, either kind of works.

    PDRS--this one bugs me. It _cannot_ be pronounced well unless you enunciate every letter. Consider instead PDRO--pronounced something like Pedro or Padro, slipping some vowel sound in between the P and D.

    Max--not a critique, I just really like this one and wanted to mention it.

    ECM--would suggest pronunciation similar to traditional NASA EECOM--long vowel, then COM sort of as in COMM. No conflict because COMM is not a name in use.

    CLESS--just another pronunciation quibble: is this See-Less, or Cless?

  2. Good point on the SYS instead of GNC; It does indeed make more sense, especially with the GPO sitting in the next chair. Same with Drive instead of Booster; it's more evocative of Plasma Sail propulsion. The ECM was a last-minute change that I regret; I will be changing it back. The PDRO suggestion is inspired. And if I remember correctly, it's usually pronounced "See-less"

    BTW, Welcome to the comments!

  3. Hmm.
    My initial read through was hesitant about all this, then I remembered that BD is going to be a setting taking full advantage of the possibilities of tele-presence. Payload will be busy as all get out during conflict.
    Interesting development and refinement of the earlier ideas, but the biggest one is - how does this impact a small ship like the likely ones the PCs will use?
    Also, you have got to talk to Kevin Brennan and James Maliszewski because they had s similar set up for their spacecraft crews.

  4. I'm not sure about the impact of small spacecraft yet. I'm trying to dig up some info on Air Force Mobile Command Posts, especially the ones that control UAVs.

    I'll be happy to talk to Kevin Brennan and James Maliszewski...if you tell me how :)

  5. Thanks for the welcome! One other minor thing: CLESS' job title doesn't actually shorten to CLESS, it shortens to CELSS. This suggests two possibilities: either change the loop name to CELSS (as in "cells," appropriate for closed-loop systems) or change the position title to something like Closed Loop Environment Support Systems that actually does shorten to CLESS.

    Also, have you thought any about hatches (beginning tangent)? On my blog, I proposed a system called CADS, a Common Androgynous Docking System. Essentially, this would be a common system of hatches like the ISS Common Berthing Mechanism (in terms of both size and capability to be used between semi-permanently docked modules), but with APAS or LIDS-style docking latches, so capture wouldn't require berthing with a robot arm, making it possible to use for crewed spacecraft and between craft without such an arm. Thus, ship-to-station, inter-module connections as part of a station, or ship-to-ship connections all can use a standard hatch, with the androgynou design meaning any given hatch can connect to any other hatch. For an RPG, this seems like it could be even more of a feature than in real life--while in real life this kind of stuff is critical to operations, it's not exactly great game material to have to constantly work out if your hatch will fit, so this could be just enough justification to largely leave it off the player's radar.

  6. I ALWAYS make that mistake with CELSS...The "Cells" nickname is priceless, BTW.

    There is a Universal Docking Collar for spacecraft; any craft can dock with any other craft or station, regardless of manufacturer or nationality.

  7. Depending on what you're doing, one or more Mission Specialists and Sensor/Science Officers would be helpful, probably even necessary.

    - Prince Charon

  8. In the post, "Space Combat in the Black Desert: Crew Requirements of the Missile Craft" I added 40 extra people to the crew of a standard IPV; 20 were Espatiers, and the other 20 were mission specialists and scientists and whatnot. The above is simply the crew needed to successfully run the spacecraft.

  9. Something that occurs to me: this is all well and good for a combat ship operating as part of a fleet, but what about cruising stations and a proper watch bill? Flight here appears to have no backup, which means that there will be time when Flight is asleep. In Mission Control, this is not allowed: there are usually at least 3 Flight Directors who trade shifts, and in fact full teams of controllers to do the same at all critical stations. Perhaps with your settings level of computers, not every station is required bfull-time, with its specific monitoring subsumed into the section lead's duties tempororily or something, but the top of the structure needs a full watch bill, I think.

    Three is best, enough for a standard watch bill, and suggests the CO, the XO, and a third officer, possibly selected from the wardroom at the CO's discretion subject to some standards-Flight needs some proficiency on every major area to know accurately what his/her controllers are recommending, and so that if he/she has to over-rule a controller's recommendations, it's an informed decision. Third Flight would be a good learning spot for potential XOs and COs--responsibility, but the decision in the most serious cases would be to wake the CO and XO for a consult.


Questions, comments, criticisms? All non-Trolls welcome!