It was almost forty years ago that I first stood in the doorway of NASA’s Mission Operations Control Room—the heart of the building known as MCC, or Mission Control Center—and felt a chill run through my body. This place, this room—history had been made here. In this room, Christopher Kraft and Gene Kranz led teams that conducted the Gemini missions. These missions taught America how to spend weeks in space, how to walk in space, and how to rendezvous with another spacecraft in orbit. These missions transformed our space experience from lobbing men into orbit to one of actually flying into space.
But Gemini was just a rehearsal for the big show—the Apollo trips to the moon. I watched those missions in my youth, riveted to the black- and-white TV set at home. I watched as Apollo 8 orbited the moon on Christmas Eve. I watched as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of Apollo 11 and onto the lunar surface in the summer of the next year. And I watched as the men and women in this very room worked round the clock to bring home the crew of Apollo 13 after their spacecraft was crippled on the way to the moon.
That room went on to be the place where engineers and scientists used to explore the moon on later Apollo missions—then went on to link up with the Soviets, and to build America’s first space station, Skylab. That room had filled my childhood, and now here I was in 1980, standing on the threshold of this almost sacred space. The carpet and textured walls made it a quiet place—and the fact that everyone inside was talking softly on a headset made it even quieter. Many have compared it to stepping into a cathedral, and that feeling was palpable; this was a place where great things could—and did—happen. It demanded respect, and maybe even a bit of reverence. The lighting was low to make it easier to read the digital displays and the arrays of event lights. Flight controllers reached quietly and calmly for books from behind their consoles—stacking them in piles of open binders to cross-check information. There was no panic—it was all matter of fact. But it was exciting beyond measure—for I knew that they were training to fly the very first Space Shuttle mission.
I remember going with one of my mentors to visit the Control Center—he needed to talk to a flight controller who was working a simulation for the first Shuttle flight. The controller was in a back room somewhere, doing a support job, and it was common to bother someone in that position during training. We walked into the back room—a room full of consoles and an even larger array of books than were in the front room—and found the person we needed to see. He looked up and waved us silent—he was obviously listening to the voice loops. “What can I do for you?” he asked after a minute or so. “I’ve got about five minutes before we come up on Hawaii, and when we get the signal, I’ll have three minutes to verify the platform alignment before we lose them, and they will be doing the deorbit burn after that. So, we’ve got to get that right—but I have a minute—so what do you need?” I realized then and there that multitasking was going to be an important skill to perfect if I wanted to be successful.
The Space Shuttle was the culmination of all we had learned about operating in space with human beings—and it was a huge leap in capability and technology. Yes, the Saturn V that sent men to the moon for the Apollo missions was taller, heavier, and could accelerate the spacecraft to much higher velocity. And yes, that spacecraft went far higher than low-Earth orbit; it went to the moon. But as marvelous as it was, the Apollo spacecraft elements were still simple compared to the mechanical, electronic, and aerodynamic complexity of the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle was capable of carrying up to 50,000 pounds into orbit, in a payload bay almost 60 feet long and 12 feet in diameter. Not only could it loft that large cargo, it could bring a huge amount back. Up until the Shuttle, returning items from space was almost as costly as lofting them into orbit in the first place—and little had ever come back, save a few hundred pounds of moon rocks—and, of course, the astronauts.
Not only could the Shuttle take a lot to orbit and back, the spacecraft itself was reusable, unlike all the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury capsules that now decorate museums across the country. A spacecraft that looked like an airplane and could fly back to a runway was what we had all dreamed of while watching Saturday morning cartoons and movies about space travel. It was a leap of imagination, an incredible technological achievement, and perhaps a little bit of magic.
I had never really planned on entering the world of Mission Control, or NASA for that matter. From my earliest memories I was enamored with anything that flew. But in those early youthful years, there were no spacecraft, so I concentrated on airplanes. I built models that didn’t fly, then I moved on to those that did, and eventually I was given the opportunity to work on (and fly) full-sized craft. Of course, the excitement that went along with the early space missions captured my attention as well, and my math educator father kept me engaged with NASA reports and information he received at his job in the state education department. I built model rockets, and I probably knew more about the space program than anyone else at school. If it flew, I could be counted on to talk about it endlessly.
Despite my immersion into space missions as a child, I really wanted to build and fly airplanes for a living. If you had asked those who knew me as a child, they all would have said that I was captivated with rocketry—and of course I’d go to NASA. But I was filled with stories of the great pilots and airplane designers, from the Wright brothers to those of modern times. I was in my junior year of college when a twist of fate redirected me to space, a chance coincidence of a local airplane company going bankrupt and NASA, looking to rebuild their corps of personnel as the Shuttle moved toward flight, putting out a call for interns and students. NASA’s Johnson Space Center had been struck hard by involuntary reductions-in-force and layoffs after the Apollo program ended, but with a new program about to lift off, it was clear that staffing levels needed to rise.
I was fortunate to be selected as a Cooperative Education Student (co-op), and I would spend the next two years shuffling between Houston and Minnesota a few months at a time as I finished my degree and learned the ropes of Mission Operations. When at last I reached the end of my schooling, a permanent job was waiting for me if I wanted it—so I took the leap and moved to Texas. I considered a job working on Tomahawk cruise missiles in San Diego, as well as a position in Fort Worth, helping to test the F-16. Since I had learned scuba diving in high school, and had gone on to be a paid diver and instructor all the way through college, I even considered staying in the scuba diving world that I had come to know well. I enjoyed the technical aspects of diving, and the risks associated with working in an alien underwater environment, and there were exciting things to be done there. But I think it might have been that first day that I stepped into the cathedral of Mission Control that tipped the scales. It truly was a magical place, and I was getting in on the ground floor of the Space Shuttle program.
Never before had mankind flown anything with wings so fast or so high. Never before did we have a spacecraft that was capable of so many things. And to do all of those things, we needed people. Specialists in mission design, planning, and consumable analysis. Flight controllers with a deep understanding of systems operation integration and troubleshooting. And engineering leaders who could look at complex problems and situations and marshal the right troops to get to a sound solution. I was fortunate to be on the front end of the staffing ramp-up—not quite the first, but early on—so I was blessed with the opportunity to be trained by the remaining veterans who had worked on Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab. Very few of those folks’ names were known to the general public—the heroes of Apollo were mostly anonymous. But some were familiar—and I was just as awed to be working for Gene Kranz, the veteran Apollo Flight Director who became legendary when the history of that program really hit the public eye, as I was to be working with veteran astronauts who walked on the moon.
It was inspiring to come to work and sit in the chairs that had been occupied by those quiet but dedicated men and women who had dared and risked so much to take humankind off the planet. It was humbling to realize just how much there was to learn. Our training was intense and continuous—those who wanted to stand above an already tall set of peers had to put in the extra work, studying at night, looking at systems and operations well outside their own assignment. It was an incredible time, really—no one tried to rise above the rest by trampling on others—we were all doing outstanding things, and it was simply a matter of challenging oneself to go even further than the rest. Everyone improved because we competed with ourselves—and there really were no losers.
Training materials, classes, and simulator lessons were being developed simultaneously with our quest for knowledge, so we all took those workbooks home, we all sat through developmental simulation sessions, and we sat through classes on how systems worked and how they were operated. Nothing was static. I remember taking home thick workbooks on orbital mechanics and how telemetry and command systems worked. So did everyone else, apparently, because I always felt I was trying to keep up with the “smart folks.” I remember waiting to be issued my first headset so that I could go to the Control Center, find an empty back room, and listen in on simulations to get the rhythm of the place. Headsets must have been in short supply back then, because only those assigned to the next mission seemed to have them. I must have somehow amused the veterans who saw my enthusiasm, because they signed my paperwork to go check one out. From then on, I was working extra hours to make sure I was not only getting my work done but also spending more extra hours learning how America flew people in space.
The Space Shuttle program was huge—spread out across the country, and across the globe. Comprehending the magnitude of the entire program was probably beyond the ability of any one single person—and for everything you learned, you found out there were a half-dozen other things that you didn’t know. While a co-op student at NASA, I returned to school for a few months and also went back to my job as a diving instructor and technical diver in Minnesota. In that group, I had a friend who bounced around from job to job in the Twin Cities. One day, he came to work with a box of metal parts—he had gotten a part-time job as a quality control inspector at a small mom-and-pop metal casting company. Those parts were familiar to me; they were the left and right halves of a Shuttle rotational hand controller, used in all the cockpits we had—including the cockpits of the real Orbiters—plus all the simulators and trainers that needed hand grips. Honeywell was responsible for the completed hand controllers, but they had subcontracted the metal shells to this small firm in Minnesota—and I had been training with them in my hands down in Houston.
This realization of just how big the Shuttle program really was never left me—and it inspired me to be the best I could be, because there was no way I wanted to let down the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people who eventually had a hand in the project. Later, as a flight controller and Flight Director, I would take trips to visit manufacturing plants and design centers for meetings and evaluations on various aspects of the program, and these visits would again remind me just how many people it took to make our job possible. It was amazing, it was humbling—and it made one proud to be a part of it.
As I had mentioned, becoming a Shuttle Flight Director was not something that I consciously aspired to when I was young, but it became a goal once I understood the structure of the human spaceflight organization. Being chosen is something I described as the Mount Everest of my career—a peak that appeared to be the tallest thing on the planet, with no further goals beyond. But in truth, it was merely a launching pad for almost twenty years in the center seat of Mission Control. A lot happened in those twenty years: we flew an entire program with the Russian Mir space station. We built the International Space Station (ISS). We flew to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) numerous times. And we lost another Orbiter and its crew. There were times with lots of missions, and times where it seemed we’d never get off the ground again. Politics ebbed and flowed around the program, making many wonder where we were going—if, in fact, we were going anywhere at all. But all that time, the work of the Flight Director was to build and fly missions—and to do that as safely as possible. No mission is ever truly safe, but we do everything in our power to identify and minimize risks, to mitigate those that can be dealt with, and then to accept those that cannot. Answers were rarely right or wrong, but often lived somewhere in that gray space where your best tools are honesty and a willingness to face your fears directly.
This history that you are about to read brings to life those days on console and in the meetings rooms, simulators, and training grounds where we lived for three decades. My goal is not to try and tell the entire story of the Space Shuttle program, but to give the reader a feel for what it was like to be inside the flight program—the months and years that went into preparing for missions, the weeks spent flying, and the aftermath, where we figured out what we had learned so that we could go back and do it all again. There are stories of remarkable technical insights and stories where no one really knew what was going on. Flying is deadly serious—but it is often wrapped in a smile, and there is much to laugh at. My stories are unique, as are the countless thousands that others can and will tell in their own books, their own memoirs. My reminiscences here don’t tell the complete story of the Shuttle flight program; they are the view of one person who was fortunate enough to have a wide view of it. So think of this as one perspective: a view behind the curtain of life in Mission Control, a life spent with dedicated individuals striving to do something unique, blasting people off the face of the planet and bringing them back after they had achieved an important goal.
It has been seven years since I last plugged my headset into a console in Mission Control, and some memories are beginning to fade, so it is time that I commit them to history so that others can learn what I was privileged to learn in all those years. I know that there are many space enthusiasts who would give just about anything to have been only a tiny part of a single Shuttle mission—and my colleagues and I were fortunate to be doing those entire missions over and over again for decades. Yes, privileged is the word—privileged to be trusted with such enormous resources to accomplish lofty missions. Privileged to be able to work with so many people who were so much brighter than I was. Privileged to have been at the pointy end of the exploration spear for so many years. It was hard, but it was worth it.
My stories include the trials and tribulations of what it is like to run a complex space mission. But while I hope that you learn something from all these tales, my real hope is that you appreciate the tremendous efforts put into raising humankind’s sights, from ground level to the stars, by the hundreds of thousands of men and women who served in the program through its many triumphs and its horrible tragedies.
The Shuttle program is over, and many of the details of how it worked are already lost. But future generations of technology will come along—they must come along—and our destiny to move off this planet will be achieved. I don’t know by whom and I don’t know when, but I trust that those future explorers will have their own stories, similar to those captured here. I hope my stories will entertain future generations with what it was like to push the path into the sky.