The Ground

Astronauts get the glory, but flight directors run the show.

Tough under pressure: Space station flight director Mark Ferring at his console during last year's STS-114 mission. (NASA)
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MICHAEL MOSES REMEMBERS feeling giddy that day in February 2005 as he walked into chief flight director Milt Heflin’s office at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston to accept his new job. Among space engineers, becoming a flight director is a crowning career achievement, and Moses half-expected Heflin, known as Uncle Milty, to give a round of high-fives to the nine newly selected directors gathered in the room. But Heflin’s words were sober. “We got an hour-long lecture that this is dangerous business, that we are on the pointy end of the sword, and that if we screw up, somebody dies,” Moses recalls.

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Not exactly welcoming, the lecture at least had an impact. “That night I hardly slept,” says Richard Jones, who like Moses had worked for years in mission control before being promoted to flight director. Another new flight director, Holly Ridings, whose previous job in mission control had been monitoring the attitude of the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit, says that now, “every time I sit down in the flight director chair, there is a little piece of my mind that thinks, ‘If things go really wrong today, the U.S. space program could be over—or at least grounded for a very long time.’ ”

Months later, when I asked Heflin why the shock treatment was necessary when all the new recruits were already battle-hardened veterans, he answered, “Humility was something they needed to pay attention to right away. They could not leave pounding their chests.”

For one thing, he says, “there were a number of people who weren’t in the room [who] were just as qualified to be sitting there with them.” And the new directors will still rely heavily on those people’s judgment. The flight director sees the big picture during a spaceflight, but it’s the individual flight controllers sitting at 19 consoles—from the propulsion engineer to the booster systems engineer to the flight surgeon—who supply the critical details. Moses, Jones, Ridings, and all but one of the other new flight directors had been reared as NASA flight controllers, in fact. Last year, a spate of retirements and promotions in mission control freed up nine coveted slots for flight director, bringing the total number to 30. It was the second largest collective hire since the job was created in the early days of the space program.

A quick demographic profile of the Class of 2005: Six men and three women, all but one in their 30s. Three native Texans, four from northeastern states, two from the Midwest. The class includes the first African-American flight director, 34-year-old Kwatsi Alibaruhu of Maywood, Illinois, an MIT graduate who joined NASA in 1995 as a space station life support systems officer. And while most of the nine have engineering degrees, 43-year-old Robert Dempsey, a former space station controller for communications and tracking, is also an astronomer, having worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore in the early 1990s. All are whip-smart, and all are high achievers.

Last December I spent a day at JSC with the new recruits as they went through their training exercises. By 7:30 a.m., Dempsey is already “on console” in the Flight Control Room (FCR, or “ficker”) for the space station. He hands me a set of headphones so I can listen to the comm loop, an open channel between mission control and the orbiting astronauts.

The station ficker is called the Blue Room. There’s also the Red Room, used for ISS training, and the White Room, the shuttle ficker, the room Hollywood usually depicts in films. Today’s task in the White Room is a simulated docking between the shuttle and the station, with new flight director Michael Sarafin in charge. Before his promotion Sarafin worked in mission control for 10 years as a guidance, navigation, and control officer. He was on duty during the 2003 Columbia accident, but doesn’t seem eager to discuss it, at least not with a journalist. “It was a hard day to lose our friends” is all he says.

In today’s scenario, the shuttle (a simulator in another room) will perform a two-minute burn of its twin Orbital Maneuvering System engines. The aim is to boost the vehicle into a higher orbit to rendezvous with the station. Two floors above, the simulation supervisor, or “simsup,” and his cohorts will try to confound the flight controllers with any number of curve balls. “They might cause a fire, cabin leak, loss of communications, loss of critical flight control systems, or loss of jet thrusters,” says Sarafin. “They are pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes. Our job is to react to what they do.”

The engines fire and mission control falls silent. The exact positions of the shuttle and ISS are projected as a high-resolution graphic on a 10- by 12-foot overhead screen. Another large display plots the orbit of the shuttle and station onto a world map. A third screen relays telemetry data, caution messages, and emergency warnings from the shuttle and ISS to mission control. It’s only a simulation, but I’m transfixed by the realism, knowing that all hell is about to break loose. Suddenly, a yellow warning code indicates three separate temperature spikes in one of the avionics bays that house the shuttle’s flight control and computer systems. The EECOM (emergency, environmental, and consumable operations manager), pronounced "ee-com," calmly flips through her mission rulebook (“Our bible,” says Sarafin) to find the right protocol and determines—with the help of other flight controllers—that the spikes are caused by a small blockage in the water-cooling loop. Switching to a redundant cooling loop returns the temperatures to normal.

It’s this particular EECOM’s first simulation in the ficker front room, a significant milestone for a flight controller. She’s already endured hundreds of similar exercises in the “back room,” where junior flight controllers work in specialist teams, training on each system in year-long rotations like med school students alternating between the psych ward, gastroenterology, and pediatrics. So goes the arc of a career in mission control—back room to front room to flight director.

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