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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Although the improvised procedure worked, space engineers hate to wing it when astronauts’ lives and billions of dollars of hardware are at stake. That’s why flight directors are among the most systematically and thoroughly trained professionals in any field. “They are Spartans, tough and competent, like the Navy SEALs,” says Ron Dittemore, the now-retired flight director who was in the public spotlight as NASA’s shuttle program manager at the time of the Columbia accident.

It was Gene Kranz who first scribbled “tough and competent” on a mission control chalkboard after another disaster—the fire that killed Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during a ground test in 1967. Kranz demanded that flight directors write the words on the blackboards in their offices, never to be erased. That combat mentality—Kranz was a fighter pilot before joining NASA—engenders camaraderie and mutual loyalty that extend well beyond working hours. “We knew each other very personally as a family,” Kranz says of his time at the space agency. “We partied together. We had the largest party fund in all of the federal government. We would take over the Astrodome. It basically helped us maintain our bond.” Not much has changed. “Being a flight director is not a job but a lifestyle,” says Ridings. “You know everybody’s kids, wives, and husbands. People call you at two in the morning, or on vacation, it doesn’t matter. When you’re working a big mission, you get home after a shift and immediately turn on NASA TV. It’s addictive.”

It’s also demanding. The job is grueling mentally, and the nine-hour shifts go round the clock. Flight directors regularly have to adjust their sleep schedules. “Everyone has a really good set of blinds at home,” quips Dana Weigel, who was a flight controller for extravehicular activities (spacewalks) before she was promoted to flight director.

The key to success, Sarafin explains, is learning how to handle potentially debilitating stress. He describes a condition called “scope lock” that sets in when a frazzled flight director or controller gets too focused on the minutiae of a particular problem “and forgets that there is a spacecraft flying up there.” They lose sight of the big picture, hypnotized by the dizzying stream of data spewing from their consoles. “Others start to ramble when the pressure is on,” adds Sarafin. “Or they might just stop talking entirely.”

Burnout is a danger in most high-stress professions. For flight directors, it’s endemic. The attrition rate for all flight controllers is in excess of 20 percent, says Sarafin. That’s why, according to Heflin, the flight director culture has had to become more “touchy feely” than it was in the Apollo days—being driven is okay; being obsessed is not. “When I was chief of the flight director office [he was recently promoted to deputy director of NASA’s mission operations directorate], I made a point of keeping track of how many hours they were working,” says Heflin. “If I needed to, I’d tell them to slow down, to go home, and find a way when they get in their cars at the end of the day to leave the job behind.” Not everyone makes it through unscathed. “The divorce rate within the flight director community is fairly high,” Sarafin says.

For the Class of 2005, the job of flight director is about to change radically. Fewer than 20 shuttle missions remain before NASA’s 25-year-old workhorse is retired. The agency has already begun to shift its focus from flying in Earth orbit to returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and, someday, heading on to Mars. Not since Kranz ran the Apollo missions have flight directors faced such daunting missions.

This time, when it comes to directing the astronauts, they aim to be less…well, controlling. The purpose of NASA’s new moon program is to stay for the long haul—to learn how to live on the lunar surface. That will mean rethinking the crew’s relationship with mission control. “Right now we schedule the crew’s time in five-minute chunks,” says flight director Ginger Kerrick. “We know that’s going to have to change.”

Dempsey has been involved in planning an exercise for an upcoming space station mission “where we say to the crew, ‘Okay, here are the key things to get done, here are your time constraints, now you plan it yourselves.’ ” The idea is to give the astronauts the freedom they’ll need for lunar missions lasting months or even years.

An important part of this approach will be onboard autonomy, software systems that enable the crew to resolve a crisis when lengthy communications delays—in the case of Mars, up to 22 minutes, depending on the positions of the planets—make it impossible to talk to the ground in real time. “Instant problem resolution will have to fall on the astronauts’ shoulders, not ours,” says Dempsey. “When there’s an onboard fault, it can’t just be a light that turns on. Today, when that light comes on, the guy sitting next to me tells the crew what page of what book to turn to. In the future, the software systems will have to do that for them.”

Both Dempsey and Dittemore, who retired from NASA shortly after the Columbia accident, make the inevitable comparison to HAL 9000, the omnipotent, omnipresent computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Of course the system wouldn’t be psychotic,” assures Dempsey, “or necessarily super-intelligent, or even completely autonomous. But smarter than the software we have now.” Dittemore says that some small steps have been taken in this direction, such as the Integrated Vehicle Health Monitoring system, flown on shuttle mission

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