"It goes back to Explorer 1 in 1958, NASA’s very first space mission," said Jim McClure, operations manager of the Space Flight Operations Facility (or SFOF) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The SFOF is mission control for many space missions and it's where the Aces are stationed. "You can’t call these guys pilots, so what do you call them? It’s a direct reference to the World War I flying ace. The Ace is always there." (Image: SFOF in 1964)
Michael Staab (right), a Cassini mission operations engineer, said the Ace console is, in many ways, like the unmanned spacecraft's cockpit. Aces coordinate with operators at NASA's Deep Space Network complexes, which are arrayed at several sites around the globe, during a communications pass with the spacecraft.
Staab sent his first command to Cassini after only a few weeks on the job. "I sent out a command file from a radio dish on the other side of the world (we were talking to Cassini via the 70-meter dish at Canberra, Australia), it traveled through space at the speed of light toward Cassini, registered onboard and radiated back down. I’m talking with a spacecraft that’s orbiting thousands of kilometers per hour around Saturn, which itself is 1.5 billion kilometers (about a billion miles) from Earth. Not a lot of people can say they’ve ever done anything like that.”
Modern Aces sit at vast consoles in the dimly-lit SFOF. The Cassini Ace monitors seven computer screens reporting on spacecraft systems and science data and keeps various mission teams informed about the spacecraft's status. Aces keep a steady watch as Cassini reports a constant cycle of more than 13,000 measurements of its health and performance, including power and temperatures. -
The Ace is also first person to respond when a problem pops up. “This is real time, where the rubber hits the road,” said David Doody (left), a space flight operations engineer on Cassini. “The Ace is in the middle of everything.”