I’m the backup Rendezvous Officer for the upcoming STS-131 mission, which means I’ll be working the rendezvous and undocking as backroom support. My shift hours are horrible, as per usual, but at least I’ll be working the shift when the crew is awake and doing interesting things!
The primary job of the backup person in my area, in addition to the real-time flight support, is to be the Book Manager for the flight. The Book Manager is in charge of all the rendezvous and undocking procedures — maintaining them, correcting them, etc. It’s a lot of paperwork (both real and virtual) and it can be a headache sometimes, but it’s a necessary part of the job to ensure that the rendezvous goes exactly as planned. The “rendezvous book,” as we call it, is only one of dozens of books of procedures, checklists, and cue cards that make up the “flight data file” or FDF.
(What, you thought the astronauts just magically remembered how to do everything that has to be done over a two-week flight? They’re smart people with good memory, but not THAT good!)
(Also, if you are curious for a closer look at some of the FDF flown each mission, you can view many of the documents on the NASA website.)
The final edition of the book gets published a month or two before launch, and my final act as Book Manager is to go over to the FDF office and check each of the actual flight copies of the book — the ones that will be packed up, shipped to Florida, loaded onto the space shuttle, and launched into orbit with the crew.
For this flight, there were 6 identical copies of the rendezvous book, along with two sets of cue cards (which are concise checklists for certain activities that are velcroed into place in orbit) and overlays (which are transparencies that they tape over the camera monitor on the flight deck to help them judge their approach rate to the space station). This means 6 separate books to go through page by page to check for errors.
Three of the copies will be flown in space, and the other three stay on the ground as backups and for archival purposes. They’re color-coded — a prime and backup book each for the commander (red), pilot (yellow), and one of the mission specialists (purple).
It’s a tedious process to be sure, but it’s necessary. In the past, we’ve discovered pages that are missing, pages with print errors, graphics that didn’t come out right, and overlays that are the wrong size. Much better to discover that type of thing on the ground than to be surprised by it in orbit!