A NASA flight director is one of the most coveted careers at the space agency. There are far fewer flight directors than astronauts but they are at the forefront of human spaceflight without ever leaving Earth.
Flight directors are in charge of Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, overseeing human spaceflight. They lead teams of flight controllers and engineers, in the U.S. and international partners, all in real-time as astronauts are living and working in space. When there are hurricanes, power outages and world events down on Earth, flight directors must tune all that out and focus on the task at hand, making sure astronauts can safely spacewalk, dock at the space station and, in a few years, land on the moon.
“There is something very familiar and very focused about that mission control environment. Somebody once called it the ‘Cathedral of human spaceflight,’ and it always does have that sense of you are in somewhere very special,” NASA Flight Director Diane Dailey said. “And it really does, at least for me, it really sets me into that mentality of, you know, this is what I’m here to do today.”
Diane Dailey, Fiona Turett, Chloe Mehring and Brandon Lloyd make up the 2021 class of flight directors. All four have respected careers at NASA supporting human spaceflight operations from the space shuttle, International Space Station, Orion, the Commercial Crew Program and the soon-to-be lunar Gateway. As NASA plans to return humans to the moon within the next three years, they follow in the footsteps of Apollo-era flight directors including Gene Kranz and Christopher Kraft Jr., who is considered the pioneer of mission control.
The agency has employed 101 flight director’s in the program’s history, 19 have been women. This year, the new class of flight directors was majority female.
Turett and Dailey spoke to News 6 shortly after NASA announced the new class and explained how their individual paths led them to this coveted position as well as what it takes to lead mission control.
Dailey said teams at mission control prepare through training for the worst-case scenarios in the event they need to support the crew during an emergency. One of Dailey’s first jobs at NASA was on the life-support systems group at JSC.
“If we were to have an emergency on the space station, a fire or something toxic in the atmosphere, or a depressure, you start losing pressure on the space station, that’s the group that actually leads the flight control team in responding to an emergency,” Dailey said. “That was part of a lot of training, even kind of early on in my career, and I used to kind of, almost mentally go into this emergency mode of, ‘we’re gonna work the problem,’ stay very systematic, be very intentional, pay attention to the details, and just kind of work through it.”
But when things are going wrong on Earth, the people in mission control can’t just sign off. Last month when Texas experienced widespread power and water outages it also impacted people in Houston, home to JSC. Turett and Dailey both described the calm inside the windowless mission control even when the world outside is anything but.
Turett said some training involved being put in simulations where 10 things break during a mission and they need to learn to work under pressure even when there is a natural disaster brewing outside the building. She worked during Hurricane Harvey and spent four days at mission control without leaving.
“That first night that we were there, there was literally like a giant storm happening around us. And one intentional decision I made was, was not to watch any TV coverage, and not watch any news and not to look at my phone and see what was happening,” she said. “That was a really important decision in terms of being able to be cool, calm and collected and know that if you know if something broke on the space station, my job that night was to fix it. And so I kind of had to compartmentalize and let that outside world go.”
Path to the flight director’s chair
Both women said they first became interested in space during middle and high school.
Growing up, Dailey wanted to become an astronaut but after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M she started working at NASA environmental control and life-support systems on the ISS. That’s when she says she started paying attention to leadership at mission control.
“The astronauts, you know, they’re absolutely critical, and really some incredible individuals. But there were a lot of important people along the way. And a lot of people who had some really important roles to play. And that’s really when the idea of flight director kind of started catching my attention,” Dailey said. “I have always been drawn to leadership and always kind of fallen into those sorts of roles.”
It wasn’t until the test flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of which included the first astronaut launch from the U.S. since 2011 when Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launched with SpaceX to the ISS, that Dailey knew she wanted to go for the flight director seat.
Dailey was the integration and systems engineering lead for both the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 and Demo-2 fights.
“Both gave me a lot of opportunity to lead and to grow, personally, and to develop my skill set that I think is really important,” she said of the missions. “But also to kind of see that role, the flight director, and I knew for sure that that was something that I wanted to do. So after the successful flight of Demo-2, when we launched Bob and Doug, and brought them home safely, the flight director opportunity came up, and I knew that I had to go for it.”
For Turett, a trip to space camp helped her hone in on her aspirations. She was surprised to find she enjoyed being in mission control during simulated Space Camp missions, rather than being an astronaut.
“I think the seed was definitely planted then,” Turett said. “I kind of knew since then, that I wanted to work in human spaceflight.”
Turett was hired at the space agency right out of college working on shuttle propulsion systems, after a NASA internship and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. She then switched to spaceflight operations on the space station before switching over to work on a Gateway. The lunar orbiting outpost is key to NASA’s Artemis program as astronauts will dock there before landing on the moon.
“Gateway is a little space station we’re building to fly around the moon. And it’s kind of designed to be a staging point and a way to get access to it for the full lunar surface. So crews will first visit gateway before they go down to the lunar surface,” Turett explained.
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch the first pieces of the lunar Gateway in 2024.
“Obviously, we’re not flying that vehicle yet. So the operations role in that vehicle is to make sure that while we’re designing it, we design it in a way that makes sense for operating it later and make sense for the astronauts who live on it,” Turett said.
In that role, Turett said she worked closely with flight directors which helped her decide to want to become one.
“Being able to see what they did day-to-day more so than just the part you see on TV, right, more so than just on console what that looks like, gave me a much better feel for what the job was. And the more I learned about it, definitely the more interested I got,” she said.
Preparing for the trip back to the moon
Both flight directors said it is a very exciting time to be at NASA. Through partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing, there will be more astronauts in space and a moon return is fast approaching, Turett said there are new fun challenges every day.
“So for me, getting kind of a front-row seat to the beginning of a program when I worked on Gateway was really, really cool. And it’s made me incredibly excited for what we’re doing in the next few years and how we’re doing it this kind of big team, bringing a lot more people in than we did with Apollo to work together and go back to the moon and then go further,” Turett said.
Meet the @NASAFltDirector class of 2021! 🎉— NASA's Johnson Space Center (@NASA_Johnson) February 8, 2021
Including our four new inductees, only 101 individuals across @NASA's history in human spaceflight have now held the role of flight director.
According to Dailey, learning to work with commercial partners has been beneficial for the missions ahead.
“It was really different when we switched over to the phase of commercial crew and had to kind of learn how to work with someone else launching the crew,” she said. “I think there was a lot of good things for both SpaceX and NASA in that partnership that I got to witness and see the way that we kind of both brought out some of the best and sometimes challenge each other, but also really, I think it’s really what helped usher us into this kind of new era where we’re launching crews from American soil.”
Advice for the next generation
Both flight directors offered some advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in mission control.
Turett said take your passions outside of the traditional classroom.
“For me in high school, doing hands-on robotics through a program, where you designed to build a robot that played a strategy game, was really influential in, in helping me kind of hone what I liked,” she said.
Soft skills that aren’t technical can make a big difference, Turett explained, including learning to work with others, deal with a stressful situation and on a team.
“I think the more you can find those opportunities outside of the classroom and whatever interests you, I think that really just helps you kind of figure out what you want and helps hold a pretty wide variety of skills,” she said.
Dailey said there is a certain skill set needed for a flight director.
“Having good communication skills are important. Things like having an interest in learning hard things, and being willing to continue to learn and to know that you’re always gonna have to continue to learn,” Dailey said.
However, both flight directors said the biggest thing is finding something to be passionate about because, for mission control, it’s more than just a job.
“Find something that just bites you and something that you get excited to get up and go to work every day and do the work that you’re doing. Because that’s really what is going to be most rewarding, it’s what you’re going to be the best at,” Dailey said. “For each of us, we just got lucky enough that space was our passion, and we ended up in the right place to be able to continue to pursue that.”
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