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IMAGE: Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell, an engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., helped to design the International Space Station's Common Berthing Mechanism.

Brian Mitchell,
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Vicksburg, Miss., native Brian Mitchell recognized for helping space station 'get it together'

April 11, 2002 - It’s up to space-suited astronauts to put the International Space Station together, but Vicksburg native Brian Mitchell is one of the people behind the scenes who makes it look so easy.

Mitchell, an engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has been recognized for his work on a piece of hardware critical to assembling the orbiting outpost. He was part of a three-person team that received the Eagle Manned Mission Success Award March 22 at the National Space Club’s 45th annual Goddard Dinner in Washington, D.C.

The other recipients were Al Parrish, senior mechanisms engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.; and Harry Warden, senior mechanical designer with The Boeing Company in Huntsville.

The three were cited for “the outstanding success of the International Space Station Common Berthing Mechanism Team that paved the way to a nearly flawless on-orbit assembly of the Phase II elements of the International Space Station.”

The Marshall Center was a key leader in the design and development of the unique international laboratory in space. Today, the Payload Operations Center at Marshall manages all science research experiment operations on board the Station. The center is also home for coordination of the mission planning work of a variety of international sources, all science payload deliveries and retrieval, and payload training and payload safety programs for the Station crew and ground personnel.

The Berthing Mechanism serves as the connection point between all the Station’s non-Russian pressurized lab and living modules. At 80 inches across, it is the largest-diameter mating interface ever developed for a pressurized spacecraft. The complex device includes alignment guides and capture latches that align and capture adjoining modules during assembly and 16 motorized bolts that lock the modules tightly together.

The team’s nomination noted that Mitchell served as the “technical conscience” of the government/industry team responsible for the Berthing Mechanism. Mitchell was the lead engineer on the project and later was selected as sub-system manager of the Berthing Mechanism and common hatch. He later served as the Node 1 element manager for the International Space Station program office. Among his contributions was an Intra-vehicular Seal that could be installed by the Station crew from inside the modules to ensure any possible air leaks are eliminated.

Six Common Berthing Mechanisms were launched to the Station in 1998 as part of the Node 1 module, named Unity, aboard the Space Shuttle. They have performed flawlessly in six missions, including the berthing of the Unity module, Destiny lab module, Quest airlock, and several dockings of the Italian-built Multi Purpose Logistics Modules that carry food, equipment and other supplies to and from the Station on Shuttle missions.

The award, sponsored by AXA Corp. of Bethesda, Md., recognizes a person or group “who by direct involvement in mission development, preparation or execution, has made a significant contribution to Manned Space Flight Mission success during the previous year.” It is intended that the recipients be at the working level – not associated with the achievement only by virtue of a management role.

Mitchell joined the Marshall Center after college in 1984. Until he joined the Environmental Control and Life Support System group at Marshall Center as a design lead last year, he had spent his entire career working on the Space Station berthing mechanism. In the process, his life became closely tied to this complex aluminum ring orbiting 17,000 miles over the Earth.

“I flew to Houston in October 2000 to support the first mission to use the Berthing Mechanism from the Mission Evaluation Room at Johnson Space Center,” he recalled recently. “The day I arrived, my mom called and said my dad was in the hospital. I flew back home, but my dad passed away 10 minutes before I arrived after a long battle with cancer. It was an emotional roller coaster because I worked so many years on this hardware and wanted to be a part of its first mission, but I knew I needed to be with my family. I wish my dad could have seen me receive this award.”

Mitchell grew up in Vicksburg and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. His mother, Loyce Mitchell, and two brothers, Joey and Rickey Mitchell, still live in Vicksburg. His youngest brother David Mitchell, resides in Virginia.

The Berthing Mechanism was a very complex device and had to be compatible with modules built by NASA’s international partners, as well as the Shuttle robot arm that would be used to install Station components, Mitchell said. It was subjected to extensive realistic testing, including sophisticated environmental and computer simulations that merged with actual hardware tests using the Berthing Mechanism. It was literally a hardware-loving engineer’s dream.

“It was so cool and so interesting that I’d go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it,” said Mitchell. “We were real nervous the first couple of berthing missions, but now it’s become just a standard operation. We expected some type of problems, but we haven’t had any. We had a great team – some of the best analytical people, test people and design people in the Space Station program.”

During his 18-year career with NASA, Mitchell has received numerous awards including the Exceptional Service Medal from NASA Headquarters, the Center Directors Commendation from both MSFC and JSC, the “Silver Snoopy” presented by the astronaut corps, and he was also a Space Flight Awareness honoree.

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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