Capcom is a term that originated in the days of the Mercury space program when spacecraft were little more than capsules . Originally named for "capsule communicator," the capcom position is traditionally a U.S. astronaut or a member of the U.S. astronaut corps, who serves in the Mission Operations Control Center as liaison with the astronauts in space.
The first capcoms were chosen from the initial group of seven astronauts selected for the Mercury project. Three-man operations teams were deployed to tracking stations around the globe. The capcom was the leader of each three-man team, and he was responsible for site mission readiness, real-time mission support, and status reporting to the Mercury control flight director. During the piloted missions, he provided communication with the astronaut in the capsule. Since there were thirteen tracking stations and only seven original astronauts, one of whom would be making the flight, the other six astronauts were sent to man the tracking stations designated as mission critical, while the most remote stations were run by recent college graduates.
Due to high-risk time-critical decisions, the astronaut corps believed that only astronauts should talk to the astronaut in the capsule. Since the men trained together, the astronaut capcom might recognize the significance of each crew members' tone of voice or speech pattern, which a non-astronaut might miss.
This practice also kept the astronauts who were awaiting their turn in the pilot's seat current on what was happening in the program since they were actual participants in each mission. By the time the Gemini Program had begun, there was a second group of astronauts from which to draw. Historically, capcoms were male because women were not selected by NASA to be astronaut candidates until after 1978. Since then, many women have served in this capacity, including the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and the first female shuttle commander, Eileen Collins.
There have been many memorable quotes uttered by capcoms throughout the history of the space program. It was fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter who said, "Godspeed, John Glenn" at the moment of engine sequence for the lift-off of Friendship 7. Astronaut Mike Collins, later to be the command module pilot for Apollo 11, sent men out of Earth's orbit for the first time with the command, "You are go for TLI" (translunar injection).
Though still in use, the term capcom is now an anachronism as capsules have been replaced by more airplane-like spacecraft. The launch of tracking and data-relay satellites in the 1980s have made it unnecessary to send capcoms to remote sites around the globe. They perform their duties in the relative comfort of the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.
see also Mission Control (volume 3); Tracking of Spacecraft (volume 3); Tracking Stations (volume 3); Women in Space (volume 3).
Vickie Elaine Caffey
Benford, Timothy B., and Wilkes, Brian. The Space Program Fact and Quiz Book. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Rensburger, Boyce. "A Capcom with a Ph.D." New York Times, August 3, 1971, p. 14.
"Capcom." Space Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/capcom
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"CAPCOM." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/capcom
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