By Paul Dye
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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.
The Last Time
No two shifts in the Mission Control Center (MCC) are ever alike. The facility is the same, of course—the big, gray, windowless building sits on the Johnson Space Center campus in Texas, along with office buildings and other large gray buildings that house labs, vacuum chambers, and engineering research facilities. Just a stone’s throw from Galveston Bay, this former cow pasture had been turned into America’s premier center for space exploration back when John F. Kennedy decided to send the nation’s heroes to the moon, and it has grown ever since.
Some days in Mission Control start slow and build. Other days, you come right out of the gate with a major problem, and you never slow down. And then there are the days when you simply don’t know where you’re headed: how quickly you’ll be on track or how quickly it will all go to worms. As I got out of my car in the Flight Director parking spot right next to the door (one of the perks of the center seat), I sniffed at the humidity and looked at the sky, wondering if the low clouds would break up for some afternoon flying later in the day. You just never knew on the Gulf Coast. At any rate, that was for later—now it was time to go to work. I passed through the double doors that kept the heat and humidity out of the carefully controlled climate of MCC and took the elevator to the second floor. I passed by the coffee pot without stopping—there’d be time for that later. I liked to focus myself on getting the shift started first. I passed the mementos and pictures of thirty years of Shuttle flight as I walked down the hall, then scanned my badge to open the door into the front room itself. A few flight controllers looked up and nodded a silent welcome as I headed for the Flight Director console in the center of the room.
I dropped my briefcase, pulled my headset out of its bag, and plugged it into the keyset jack under the console. The keysets were our link to the outside world—an intercom panel that allowed us to monitor and/or talk on any of thousands of various communications channels, called loops, that reached out around the world, and out into space. Each loop had a name and a purpose, and it was organized in a hierarchical structure that allowed specialists to have conversations among themselves while generalists could talk about the big picture. Generally, everyone involved in a mission was expected to monitor the air-to-ground communications channel—the talk between the crew in space and the CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator, the one person in the Control Center who did all the talking to the crew) on the ground—at all times. They were also expected to monitor the Flight loop, formally known as the Flight Director loop, which was the primary channel where everything was coordinated. The Flight Director was the owner of this loop, and it was how anyone needing to talk with Flight (the Flight Director’s call sign) provided information, asked questions—or pleaded their case.
Communications on any of the loops followed a protocol like that used by pilots and air traffic controllers for generations. If you need to talk with someone, you punched the Talk button on your keyset for that loop, and then spoke their call sign, followed by yours. “CAPCOM, Flight” would be how the Flight Director got the CAPCOM’s attention. The proper response would be “Flight, CAPCOM—go ahead.” This let the caller know that the receiver was listening. Conversation could then follow as required. Once that link had been established, conversation often became much less formal, with discussion, questions, answers, and brainstorming-type dialogue. This mix of formal calls and informal conversation often seemed strange to newcomers, but once they got used to it, the rhythm became obvious. You had to get comfortable with the fact that thousands of people in the program could be listening anywhere in the world to what you were saying, of course. But once you got over the fear of making a mistake (which everyone did now and again), communication came naturally—to most. There was a small percentage of folks who never got comfortable, and they simply didn’t make it as flight controllers.
Getting the rhythm of Control Center communications could take a little time, but once you did, you could listen to multiple conversations at once, and pop in and out of ongoing discussions with ease. Reading transcripts of a recorded keyset was often difficult, because you couldn’t recognize the voices the way you could when listening to an actual recording. Keyset audio was usually recorded in the Control Center, and flight controllers often asked for audio tapes of their sessions so they could go back and reconstruct what they had done right, and what they had done wrong. It was far easier to do this with audio than by reading a transcript.
There were two keysets on each console, one for the person who was currently responsible and one for the person coming on to relieve them—or simply for an observer who dropped in for a while. It was considered bad form to walk up and start talking to someone on console without being plugged in; you never knew what was going on in their other ear. They might be listening to multiple conversations all at once, and chatting with them face-to-face could break their concentration on something important. So, if you were just dropping in to see what was going on, you always wanted to plug in and select the same loops they had up on their keyset.
As I plugged in, sat down, and selected the loops I needed for my shift on this morning, I was pleased to find it generally quiet. Quiet is good in our business—everyone is working to a plan, and if everything is going well, there is little need for conversation. There was the usual hum of conversation among senior flight controllers in the Shuttle and Space Station primary control rooms and their support folks sprinkled in small rooms around the building. But the Flight loop was quiet, and the crew wasn’t talking much, indicating that they were busy working on the day’s scheduled activities.
All Space Transportation System (STS) missions had a number, with the final flight being number 135. The STS-135 crew was busy moving cargo between the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis and the International Space Station (ISS) on this quiet morning. The hatches were open, and the two crews were busy working their nominal timelines when I got a call from our environmental and thermal flight controller, call sign EECOM, regarding a change in cabin pressure (dP/dT). EECOM sat one row ahead, and over to my right, against the wall, and when he called me, I looked over in his direction. The look on his face told me we had a problem. Before we were through, our world had changed—and the rest of the team had been drawn into the chase:
“Flight, EECOM—we’re seeing a negative dP/dT, and the crew has a master alarm. Recommend the joint emergency egress cue card in the Joint Ops. Page 331 in Joint Ops.”
I keyed my mic—“Copy EECOM. CAPCOM, let’s get them in Joint Ops.”
Joint Ops was the Joint Operations Checklist—a document that covered all the procedures that involved interaction between the Shuttle and ISS crews (and their respective control centers). The ISS used very little paper—most of their procedures were electronic. The Shuttle team, working with a vehicle whose computer systems were designed back in the 1970s, depended more on actual paper books. But for critical procedures—like a cabin leak—the necessary procedures were generally printed on cue cards—thick paper that could be slapped onto patches of Velcro on the walls and grabbed quickly when needed. Getting the crew in the Joint Ops procedure allowed everyone to know exactly what was happening, and what was going to happen next, regardless of whether they were looking at the procedure in paper form or on a computer screen.
“Atlantis, Houston… we see your cabin leak, and we want you on the emergency egress cue card in Joint Ops. That’s page 331 in Joint Ops, if you don’t have the card handy.” This was my CAPCOM getting the crew headed in the direction we wanted them—even though we knew they were probably already there.
I needed to make sure that the ISS was going down the same path we were, so I keyed my mic on my loop once again—“Station Flight, Shuttle Flight, my loop.”
The Space Station Flight Director was Courtenay McMillan, one of my colleagues from the Flight Director Office. Courtenay was one of those incredibly sharp engineers who grew up in the Space Station program, and she had a deep understanding of the systems as well as all the details of the international partnership. I was also certified as an ISS Flight Director and served in the position when needed—but I had nowhere near the depth of knowledge of the dedicated cadre of which Courtenay was a member. I was lucky to have her there, really running the show. While docked, the Orbiter systems and operations were mostly idling at a low level and the figurative (as well as the real) center of gravity was in ISS operations, led by ISS Flight.
For Shuttle missions to the ISS, I was always on the Shuttle side. But during routine orbit operations, Shuttle Flight Directors filled holes in the schedule to augment the folks who were dedicated to ISS, and (more importantly) to keep us up to speed on the Station and how its operations worked. The ISS Control Center was just out the door and down the hall from our Flight Control Room (FCR), in the “old” MCC building. It had been changed and refurbished, and was more modern than the “new” Control Center where we flew the Shuttle, but the operational concept was the same.
Technically—and officially—speaking, during joint Shuttle/ISS operations, the overall lead for the mission was the lead ISS Flight Director, and we worked under that person when the Shuttle was docked to the ISS. But realistically, we were equals, and masters of our own vehicles. Since we shared offices (in yet another building on the other side of the space center), staff meetings, and staffs, there were no mysteries in operating together—and we consulted regularly throughout the mission. In an emergency case like this, we needed to be in lockstep through the procedures and decision-making.
“Go ahead Shuttle Flight—we see the dP/dT.”
“Okay, we’ve got our crew on the cue card, and I expect everyone’s headed for their respective vehicles. Is your crew in Joint Ops?”
“Yup—we’ve got them on the card too.” Courtenay was fast, and I figured they were already with us—but a voice call made sure.
“Flight, EECOM. T-Rez looks like about six hours, we’ll refine that.”
“Copy EECOM. Let’s see what happens when they get the hatch closed.”
Just like that, a quiet morning in MCC was interrupted by a large cabin leak in the joint stack—Atlantis and the International Space Station had been docked together for several days on this last of all Shuttle missions. The crew was busy transferring cargo in both directions, and suddenly, their atmosphere was going somewhere—but we didn’t know where—or why. The Joint Ops Checklist was used for malfunctions that could affect both the Station and Atlantis.
"An excellent portrait of Mission Control, the teams, and the later missions. This should be required reading for anyone aspiring to be part of human space flight, as well as all scientists, engineers, project managers of any kind, and anyone considering a career in a highly complex field or program."
—Gene Kranz, Former Flight Director, NASA, and author Failure Is Not an Option
- "Paul Dye pulls back the curtain on what it takes to be a Flight Controller, then a Flight Director in Mission Control. Like him, I've been both. Shuttle, Houston should not only entertain the casual, interested reader, but it should be invaluable to anyone aspiring to work in the 'Center Seat' whether that's in Mission Control or any other business or leadership position."—Milt Heflin, NASA 1966-2013, Retired, Johnson Space Center Chief Flight Director, 2001-2004, and coauthor of Go, Flight!
- "I learned many of these lessons from Paul Dye as he taught me and two decades more of Mission Control leaders the ropes, in exactly these words! His guidance is as valuable today in any leadership setting as it always was."—Paul Sean Hill, Retired NASA Flight Director and Director of Mission Operations, and author of Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom
"Shuttle, Houston gives us tremendous insight on the Mission Control Center. Paul Dye captures the awe and amazement of being part of that team. His wonderful explanations of how everyone works together and his understanding of the science and history will fascinate anyone who appreciates the dynamic world of human space exploration."
—Shannon Lucid, former Astronaut
- "Richly detailed with the author’s own experiences and recollections, Shuttle, Houston covers virtually every aspect of Mission Control. By the time you finish reading this book, you will feel like you just participated in an actual space mission….A very interesting read."—National Space Society
- "Terrific...a fascinating history of how America built and operated the most complex machine ever devised by man....Anyone who is interested in flying generally, the history of flight, or managing massive technical projects, will enjoy this read."—Kitplanes
"Government or commercial, capsule or shuttle, crewed spaceflight require the support of a mission control to ensure a safe mission. Wherever that mission control may be located and however it looks, it requires the same rigor and attention to detail described in Dye's book to ensure success."
—The Space Review
- "With a clear voice from the onset, Dye deftly crafts the story of his many years working on the Shuttle program around the broader story of NASA at that time.... We are afforded a glimpse of the inner workings of NASA, a rare treat...the book is somehow referential and personal, thanks to the author's excellent writing skills. Packed with fascinating anecdotes from each mission...for anyone with even a passing interest in human spaceflight, this is a must-read.”—BBC Sky at Night Magazine
- "Space history enthusiasts will relish this."—AudioFile
"A passionate look at the U.S. space shuttle program....The author fondly recalls in scrupulous detail the highlights of his three-decade career as a top NASA flight controller... both engaging and informative....The author's simple anecdotes about everyday working life at mission control that make for the most readable, entertaining sections....Dye's memoir is a balanced mix of moments both banal and breathtaking."
- "A fascinating insight into the inner workings of NASA."—Booklist
- "Dye provides an insider view of historic events....This motivating book shows people succeeding at their best: smart, cooperative, innovative, and caring."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books