This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

'This is Ground Control': The Invention of Mission Control Centers in the United States and Europe




Johnson, Michael

Type of Degree





This dissertation examines the invention of mission control centers by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency, particularly during the Cold War. The control rooms of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the European Space Operations Centre, in Darmstadt, Germany, lie at the heart of this discussion. The three control centers developed individually, however each contain certain similarities yet important differences based on their particular political, economic, and spaceflight, needs. Spaceflight history normally focuses on the astronauts and spacecraft in space. This dissertation instead looks at the history of spaceflight through its ground systems, where the majority of the spaceflight work takes place. It will ask how controllers have fashioned workplaces and workspaces. While all mission control centers fulfill the same basic task of monitoring spacecraft, minor and major differences have lead to some dramatic differences in the construction of the centers. This work tackles three centers with very different missions: American human spaceflight, American robotic spaceflight, and finally European robotic spaceflight. Both domestic and international politics play an important role in the discussion. Because space agencies require large budgets, decisions to locate space centers in certain locations involve politically-charged debates and recommendations. Internationally, spaceflight efforts became quickly engrained in the Cold War. The Americans space program, which was large enough to pay for its projects and involved in a competition with the Soviet Union, reluctantly pursued relationships with outside space programs. The European space program, on the other hand, relied upon cooperation with other space programs due to its limited budget and fundamentally international characteristic. As budgets have lessened and the world community has changed to more acceptance of international collaboration, the dynamic has changed in spaceflight to embrace cooperative projects as essential. Each of the control centers necessarily has learned to adapt to an ever-changing political landscape.