Orders, Captain?

I’d love to run this multi-stage question past Cecil, but I don’t know how to ask it intelligently. Maybe somebody here can make some sense of it.

I got to thinking about this after a friend and I were talking about Star Trek, and the topic of discussion became how a real military agency charged with exploring the galaxy would operate. What bugged me is that in Star Trek the captains seemed to spend all of their time on the bridge sitting in a big chair in the middle of the room without much in the way of controls at hand and not really actually doing anything most of the time, when there wasn’t a battle to direct or diplomacy to conduct. That didn’t seem right, but honestly neither of us couldn’t say what real ship captains actually do on their bridges.

So, Question First Stage: What do real ship captains actually do all day?

So then I thought, well, what about real astronauts? I read a great deal about space travel, and there are often references to mission commanders. However, none of them seem to do any actual commanding. This may be due to constant contact with ground control, and the fact of missions have been so thoroughly planned out in advance, but the most dramatic calls I can remember any commander ever making were both made by Neil Armstrong; The first when he chose to go to abort procedure and activate re-entry thrusters to stabilize the capsule on his Gemini mission, and the second during the final approach on his moon landing when he decided the landing site was obstructed, overrode the radar guidance, and manually manuevered to a new landing site with only seconds to spare. Neither of these actions involved commanding anybody; they were essentially acts of piloting. I can’t remember any mention of any STS commander commanding anybody in over 100 missions. Additionally, what of the other commonly referred to astronaut ‘ranks’?

So, Question Second Stage: Do astronaut (or cosmonaut) commanders actually command anything? Or are they just pilots? Does a ‘mission specialist’ outrank a ‘payload specialist’? Or does everbody answer only to the ground?

Confusion about the meanings of ranks in space quickly leads to confusion about the meanings of ranks everywhere. Is a NASA commander anything on the ground? Is a U.S. Air Force Captain anything in space? Is a British Naval Lieutenant anything in Wyoming? I thought NASA was a civilian organization- so how is it even possible for people in NASA to have ranks? My father served in the Golani Brigade of the IDF, during the War of Attrition. I know that doesn’t entitle him to veteran benefits in America, but why do people still look at me funny if I call him a veteran?

So, Question Third Stage: Is there any universal value to ranks given within military organizations? Or any fundamental requirement for giving such ranks? In short, can my friends and I form a people’s militia and declare my dog Rear Admiral?

If anybody can get these questions off the ground, I would appreciate it. Otherwise, do you think they’re worthy of sending in?

Question 1.) Actually, when on the bridge, sitting in a big chair and doing very little is a pretty good description of the Captain’s duties. He makes decisions about where the ship goes, but based on HIS orders from above. The final responsibility for all decisions rests with him, but he generally has to have good reasons to ignore the advice of his department officers or chiefs. He conducts Captain’s Mast, where sailors receive punishment for their infractions. He gets to wear the fancy suit and attand social functions. He has to fight to get his budgets approved, etc. The Captain is basically the CEO of his ship and many of his duties are administrative. Even in wartime, the CO acts under orders from his superiors and risks court-martial for deviating from them.

What was unrealistic about Star Trek was that the senior officers went on every mission. In reality, the Captain does NOT go out to meet the (potentially) hostile natives.

Question 2.) The mission commanders on spacecraft are responsible for ensuring that the mission’s objectives are met. Also, they have to make the hard decisions if the need arises and defend those decisions if they survive them.

Question 3.) Military ranks are conferrred and honored by the organization which created them. A British Admiral can’t give orders to an American buck private, unless that private’s organization (like the US Army) has either assigned that private to the Admiral’s command, or has given that Admiral command priveleges.
As far as creating your own private military and naming your dog the Butt-sniffing Admiral - feel free, just don’t expect anyone to salute him (or try to declare martial law at the mall).

Don’t most NASA astronauts come from the USAF?

So if one were to formally phrase a persons rank, wouldn’t it be necessary to include the organization that conferred that rank? Something like:

PFC Sam Adams, US Army
Admiral Joseph Bloggs, Royal Navy

I seem to vaguely remember seeing forms like these, but I can’t think of any specific examples. That still leaves NASA ranks up in the air; do they represent an actual chain of command? The ranks seem to be assigned for the duration of a mission only, so I would conjecture that the form goes something like:

STS-1 Commander John W. Young, NASA

Does anybody know of any such official form?

And that still leaves:

Rear Admiral Chico, Marietta Minutemen

Mission Commanders and Pilots generally did, while Mission Specialists did not. Generally Mission Specialists are just that, people chosen to work on the specifics of that mission and many do it only once, like a professor I knew in college. Commanders and Pilots are repeat flyers.

As to what Mission Commanders do, they are the pilot of the shuttle. “But wait,” you say, “Isn’t there are position called Pilot already?” Yes, he is the copilot. As I have heard it explained to me by an astronaut, no macho test pilot (where they recruited the earlier astronauts from, not sure if they still do) wanted to be called Copilot.

Well, that definitely sounds plausible in today’s Navy, but what voyages of exploration in pre-wireless days? Would Captain Cook have spent time at the wheel, or done his own navigation? What about on a submarine; all those WWII movies seem to suggest the captain took an active role in gunnery. (Much as Klingon captains do in Star Trek)

I keep thinking the command structure necessary to operate a long-range spacecraft out of communication with earth would probably resemble a bomber crew, but as best I can tell all Air Force unit structures blur the distinction between captain and pilot, and spacecraft just don’t need much manual piloting.

Yipe! This may be true for the shuttle era, but definitely not true for the entire history of NASA.

To prevent us all from being keel-hauled, I will point out that until the Apollo program, astronauts were almost exclusively military. That doesn’t equate to USAF, of course; it also includes Navy and Marine aviators (don’t call them pilots).

With one exception, civilian astronauts came in late in the Apollo program, after several scientists bitched like hell. The only one of these scientist-astronauts to “fly” was Harrison Schmidt, a geologist who went to the Moon as the LEM pilot on Apollo 17, the last mission. Others had been scheduled, but NASA shut down the program after 17.

The exception was, ironically, Neil Armstrong. He was ex-Navy (according to my memory) but had left to become a civilian test pilot for the NACA, the predecessor to NASA. He was arguably the best test pilot among the NASA bunch, though they were all good; he was a great pilot and great aeronautical engineer and nerves of steel.

The Original 7 had 3 USAF pilots (Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton), 3 Navy aviators (Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra) and one Marine (Glenn). This balance is pretty well reflected in succeeding groups.

As far as I can tell, multi-man missions through Apollo were either all AF or all Navy except for 11; Armstrong was a civilian ex-Navy while Aldrin and Collins were USAF.

Basically the Captain’s main job isn’t to do things himself - he’s the guy who’s supposed to make sure everyone else is doing their jobs.

Since we’re on the subject of Starfleet vs real life militaries; what is the procedure for subordinates to relieve their CO from command? In Star Trek the CMO seems to be able to do it unilaterly (or after “a battery of tests”).

[pointless trivia]There are even a few Army and at least two Coast Guard astronauts, that I know of. [/pointless trivia]

I’m familiar with the military background of early astronauts, but I had no idea they were assigned with aviators of the same service. This is exactly the sort of inter-service complication I’m interested in. I’ve come across many reports of minor tensions between Armstrong and Aldrin, and that was probably a factor. (Although Armstrong still accepted Aldrin as Pilot for Apollow 11 when given the opportunity to change the mission crew.)

Weren’t those 60s military astronauts still on active duty in their various services during missions? Does this mean they were assigned to a NASA command structure, or were NASA officials given some kind of official command status by each service?

Navy Captains are definitely not on the bridge in the comfy chair all day. They spend a lot of time in their office or walking around the ship asking questions and issuing orders.

If a destroyer were taking part in a training exercise 90 days from now, the captain would give his officers the fixed details (time, place, where they expected to be beforehand) and tell one of them to make a plan for the ship’s participation. He might ask the officer to come into his office and brief him on the details of the plan, and grill that officer with “what if?” questions. He’s also conducting after-action reviews on everything the ship has done in the last week or so. Each day his calendar will include a few items from the previous week and many items preparing for the upcoming 90 days.

He’s also handling disciplinary problems that require his signature, communicating with friends in the Pentagon and the Fleet to ensure his best officers and enlisted personnel get good follow-on assignments or the right training “slots” (these slots are often in short supply and high demand).

He’s signing letters of recommendation and awards packages, and personally writing supervision and fitness reports on his ship’s highest officer ranks. On a destroyer that might be only five or six officers (direct supervision) but he’ll also have to read, correct, and sign personnel reports on all officers two reporting slots below him, because blank space in an officer report, or the word “excellent” instead of “outstanding” can cause an officer to not get promoted or selected for a position. The officers who draft these reports may not be familiar with all of the current buzzwords required to fill up the form, but the Captain needs to be familiar with them; it reflects poorly on him if his officers do not have a good promotion rate.

He is responsible for making sure the ship is filling its quota of safety drills, that it’s painted haze gray all over, that it’s not burning too much fuel, that his crew are avoiding hazards to navigation and foreign territorial waters, and that there is no hazing, abuse, or sexual harassment occurring on his ship. He has to be seen and heard doing the right thing at just the right times to shape the morale and the culture of his ship.

…and he also has to eat and sleep.

Operational commanders, just like other officers, have to perform certain tasks periodically to maintain their qualifications. For example, a carrier jet squadron’s commanding officer has to land on the carrier a certain number of times within the prescribed period. I can readily imagine that in the far future, a starship’s commanding officer will be required to have a certain amount of Bridge time (and I don’t mean the card game).

I believe the Federation was a civilian agency, not a military one. The Enterprise’s mission had nothing to do with warfare. It was outfitted with weapons for self-defense, but it was not a battleship.

I have no background in the military so I will simply amplify the question rather than giving an answer. One would surmise from the media that a medical officer could declare a captain medically unfit for duty. Also, I gather that an XO may have some authority to relieve a captain. I believe that any other effort by subordinates to relieve a CO would be mutiny. The movie Crimson Tide was a great illustration of this idea, but due to its many factual errors it’s difficult for me to assess how realistic that situation is.

Not an answer, amplifying the question, hoping for a military person to contribute on this point.

Submarine commanding officers do not usually take direct control of ship’s actions doing routine operations. The exception is during battle stations and if the CO feels that he needs to take control of the ship during an emergency or impending accident. The officer who gives rudder orders and such is said to have the “conn,” and typically the Officer of the Deck (OOD) has the conn.

(Only part of the crew, including the OOD, is actually on “watch” at any one point. Usually about 1/3 of the crew is on watch. The other 2/3 of the crew are sleeping, conducting training, doing other admin duties, etc.)

When the ship goes to battle stations, every member of the crew is up and assigned to some “battle station.” At battle stations, the CO generally takes the conn from the OOD. In such a situation, the CO very likely will be “fighting the ship” and actively operating the periscope and giving orders for torpedo and/or missile shots. The OOD will remain on watch to assist the CO and take care of any mundane issues that come up.

Even if the ship is not at battle stations, the CO can walk into the submarine control room at any time and give a rudder, depth, or speed order. Upon doing so, the OOD will immediately announce to all in the control room, “The captain has the conn.” This is to avoid any confusion from possible conflicting orders.

Considering that a major inspiration for Roddenberry in creating the show was Horation Hornblower, it might be productive to look not at modern naval/military practice but more to how things were done in the Age of Exploration. In those years, it was pretty common for the senior staff to handle initial on-shore contact and subsequent negotiations; the officers were frequently aristocratic types who sailed their ships to distant ports to investigate shipping routes and secure trading partners, and who had a lot of money tied up in the voyage (or who were responsible for investors’ money). They therefore would not leave the critical business of establishing relationships, contracts and treaties to their underlings. Indeed, some nations and/or trading companies forbade the common sailors from even knowing the ship’s position, to prevent them from planning mutinies and desertions.

From this point of view, the weirdly hybrid situation on Star Trek makes a little bit more sense. Not a lot, but a little. :slight_smile:

Who was, of course, Horatio’s more talkative brother. :smack:

A far better fictional example of a subordinate relieving a CO is the novel The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk.

Subordinates relieve their commanding officers at their peril. All of their actions will be scrutinized by the resulting investigation, and the subordinate will likely face a court-martial should their actions not be justified beyond a shadow of a doubt.

See, again, this is just the sort of confusion I am talking about. The Coast Guard is, strictly speaking, not an organization charged with conducting warfare. But you’d be hard pressed to convince me it’s not military.

The only type of ‘civilian’ government agency I can think of which has ranked officers and whose standard equipment includes weapons is a police force. Which raises further questions I hadn’t even thought to ask about how the chain of command works inside my local precinct. And Star Trek certainly wasn’t about a police force.

They were under the Dep’t of Transportation until they were absorbed into the Dep’t of Homeland Security after 9-11. The Coast Guard are one of the seven “uniformed services” of the United States. The Coast Guard rank of Captain is equivalent with all of the DoD O-6 grades, but is also equivalent to a Captain in the NOAA Corps (Dept Commerce) or the Public Health Service (Dept of Health and Human Services - plus they get a Surgeon General!). They are apparently considered one of the five “armed forces”, but they don’t report through the Department of Defense, and their mission is more like the US Border Patrol (DHS, formerly DoJ), who are considered Federal Police. So you can use the word “military” if you want, but “armed service” or “armed forces” is probably as aggressive a wording as you can get away with before a DoD employee gives you the :rolleyes: .

I would consider the Star Trek crew to be more like the NOAA Corps, the Navy, NASA, and the State Department all rolled into one.