The Right Stuff to be a Flight Director

Marianne Dyson, October 2018

Recently NASA announced the first woman, Holly Ridings, to be selected as Chief of the Flight Director’s Office. Flight directors lead the team of flight controllers in Mission Control. The Chief Flight Director is their boss. To reach this position, a person must demonstrate a high level of integrity: like Randy Stone (1944-2013) who similarly rose up from flight controller to flight director to chief flight director (and eventually led Mission Operations). I’d like to share his story via an excerpt from my memoir.

BEGIN EXCERPT (omissions marked with three dots … )

Diane [Freeman] and I were on the Ascent, or Silver Team, for STS-1. Our Flight Director was Neil Hutchinson who expected only the best and no excuses. And well he should. If something were going to break, it’d most likely happen during the dynamic ascent phase.

About a week before launch, Mission Operations Director Gene Kranz called the Silver Team into the auditorium in Building 30. His speech wasn’t the “go team” speech that I’d expected. It was more of a warning and a blessing mixed into one. He reminded us that the space shuttle was the most complex vehicle ever designed by man. “Things break and fail,” he said bluntly. “But,” he added, “You won’t fail.” He said that each of us had been trained more thoroughly for this flight than any team in history. Our managers and the crew were counting on us to make the right calls at the right time. He said he trusted us and that we should in turn trust each other and trust our training. He left us with the sobering absolution that “If the mission fails, it won’t be because of something you did.”

We filed out of the auditorium quietly, each of us lost in thought. No one had ever flown such an unwieldy vehicle, an airplane with stubby little wings strapped to a giant tank with rockets bolted onto the sides. Did we really know what we were doing? Apparently, Mr. Kranz felt that we did, as much as anyone could in a test program. After all, if we knew everything about how this vehicle would fly, we wouldn’t need test flights. He’d expressed the ultimate confidence in us without any false pretenses. He’d sat in on all the long sims. He’d seen us wrestle with failures and find ways to work around them. He knew every one of us by name–had questioned us in briefings, in meetings, and seen us let off steam at social events. He trusted us to do everything humanly possible to prevent or mitigate the consequences of any failures.

Even though I was just a lowly Timeline 2, I felt an immense responsibility to justify Mr. Kranz’s confidence in me. This was no game or simulation. Two men I’d worked with for more than two years were going to eat steak and eggs for breakfast, suit up, and climb aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. The procedures I’d written for transitioning the computers, for opening the payload bay doors, for what to do if the FES [Flash Evaporator System] or Freon loops, or the primary computers failed, were stowed onboard. My name was on the inside cover of those books. Though others had reviewed and approved them, I felt responsible for those procedures.

I was too keyed up to sleep the night before the launch, scheduled for 45 minutes after sunrise, Florida time, on Friday, April 10. ….  I wore a patriotic white jacket and a blue and white striped shirt. I proudly put my STS-1 and my silver team pins on the lapel of my jacket. I headed out, briefcase and sack lunch in hand. …

Once at my console, I fished a small instamatic camera out of my briefcase. We weren’t supposed to have cameras, but I hoped no one would mind if I took a few snapshots in the back room. I popped the square flashbulb on top. I took a photo of the row of controllers, with Diane in front. I handed the camera to Diane to take one of me. Unknown to us in those days of film cameras, all these pictures blurred. Afraid a manager might yell at me, I put the camera away. …

Marianne Dyson, 1981
Marianne Dyson during STS-1 launch abort, 1981

Like in football games where the clock is stopped for time-outs, the countdown clock stops at certain times in the prelaunch preparations while controllers check data. During the hold at T-2 hours and 4 minutes, Young and Crippen were strapped into their ejection seats. If anything happened during the launch or the latter part of entry (below about 100,000 feet), those seats would blow them out of the cockpit. This capability was only available during the first four test flights and was the reason the crew size was limited to two astronauts.

Even though the Launch Control Center at Kennedy was in charge until the vehicle cleared the launch tower, Houston Flight had to give a “go” for the launch to occur. Hutchinson wouldn’t give that go unless he got a go from each member of the Silver Team. The countdown proceeded until the T-20-minute hold. Everything was going great, and we all refreshed our coffee and made final trips to the restroom.

When I plugged my headset back in, I heard a heated discussion on the data processing system loop. As DPS Randy Stone (1944-2013) related in his oral history session, “When we came out of the T-minus-twenty-minute hold, we had four good primary computers, but the backup computer couldn’t see two of the flight control strings in the vehicle. Clearly it was unacceptable to fly your first flight when the two systems didn’t match,” he said. …

Stone said, “My back room was analyzing the data, and … they came to me on the loop and said, ‘There is nothing wrong with the backup. The problem is with the primary computer system. It’s not sending data.’”

I heard Stone call the Flight Director, “Flight, DPS.”

“Go, DPS,” Hutchinson said.

“We want to transition everything back to OPS-9.”

OPS-9 was the prelaunch mode for the computers. So they did this and Stone said, “The computers all looked good, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, if we come out of this hold and it works, am I go to fly?’ I’ve talked to my back room, and Gerry Knori and Jim Hill and Bill Lychwick all said, ‘We don’t understand it. We don’t want to fly today.’”

By now the countdown had progressed to T-9-minutes and was on hold for ten minutes. The weather was beautiful. The astronauts were strapped in and ready. Hundreds of thousands of people, including politicians and celebrities, were waiting and watching. And so was Mr. Kranz who’d reminded us all of the seriousness of our responsibilities. The decision rested heavily on Stone’s shoulders.

While he contemplated the computer issues, one of the fuel cells showed abnormal acid levels. The countdown was halted. The fuel cell was quickly determined to be okay, and the countdown was set to resume after the hold.

Stone said, “I made a decision with the help of the folks in the back room that it is not the right day to go fly. So I got on the flight loop. … I said, ‘Flight, I don’t care what happens when we come out of the T-minus-nine-minute hold. DPS is no go for launch.’ And man, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. I mean, it went from a lot of buzz to quiet.”

On the Flight loop, Hutchinson asked, “Are you sure you are no go for launch?”

Stone said, “Yes, sir. We do not understand what happened here. If it works this next time, I can’t guarantee it’s going to work through ascent, and I can’t guarantee it’s going to work when we bring these computers back alive to do entry. I am no go for launch.”

When we came out of the hold, the computers still didn’t match up. But even if they had, Stone had already made his decision, and so had Hutchinson. Would the managers support this decision to scrub the launch? It was an expensive choice. The eyes of the world were on us, and the launch had been slipped again and again. But a flight controller had trusted his training and made a difficult call, knowing that even worse consequences might have resulted if he hadn’t.

The team at KSC and in Houston worked for three hours unsuccessfully to trace the source of the computer problem. Finally, the Launch Director halted the countdown clock and declared a scrub at just before 10 a. m. Young and Crippen, who had been lying on their backs for six hours, were helped out of the cockpit.

Stone said, “My claim to fame is I was the guy that was no go for launch on STS-1 before we ever found out if it was okay or was going to work when we came out of the hold again. And truly, I believe that was a turning point in my decision-making process where I was confident enough to say no in an environment when everybody else wanted to say yes.”

After the flight, the Center Director Chris Kraft, Jr. pulled Stone aside and told him that he’d made the right call, scrubbing the launch. About three weeks later, Stone was selected to become a flight director. …

We soon learned that the problem with the computers was a timing error that caused them not to sync up with the backup machine. …. IBM fixed the flaw in the software after the first flight so it couldn’t happen again.

END EXCERPT

So please join me in congratulating Holly Ridings on her selection as Chief of the Flight Directors Office. She is an inspiration to all.

Writing about Space

To the Moon and Back: My Apollo 11 Adventure, a pop-up book from National Geographic that I coauthored with Buzz Aldrin, with art by Bruce Foster, is available for order now from Amazon. Look for it in stores everywhere on October 16.

My science fact article, “In Defense of the Planet,” is in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of Analog. Get your subscription now!

Speaking about Space

Teachers, librarians, and event organizers, please consider me for Author Visits. Writers and publishers, I offer science consulting, content and technical editing.

October 2, Instructor for first class of Women and Space course at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

October 12, Featured speaker on Friday 11 to noon, book signing 12-12:30 at the NatGeo Cengage Booth #408 at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Reno, Nevada.

October 27, Saturday, 10-2. Free & Open to the Public: NASA Johnson Space Center Open House. Look for copies of To the Moon and Back at the JSC Employees Exchange Store either at the tent by the Saturn V or in Building 3 cafeteria.

Author: Marianne

Marianne Dyson is an award-winning children's author, science fiction writer, and former NASA flight controller. To invite her to speak or order her books, visit her website, www.mDyson.com.