STS-1 Mission Control

April 2016

Author Marianne Dyson’s Science Snacks Newsletter

Hello, and a special welcome to those of you who subscribed after my visits to the University of Florida’s Society of Women Engineers in Gainesville and the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas in March. This month’s science “snack” celebrates the 35th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle flight.


Caption: New Women Flight Controllers exhibit at the International Women in Aviation and Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, includes my donated STS-1 FAO console copies of Ascent and Entry Checklists, my pink STS-1 badge, and a copy of my memoir, A Passion for Space, that details early shuttle flight operations. Thanks to Museum Board Member Marcy Frumker and Executive Director Heather Alexander for creating this exhibit to help inspire the next generation of flight controllers. Photo by IWASM, 2016.

STS-1 Mission Control

April 12, 2016 is the 35th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch. My husband (Thor) and I were privileged to be part of the Mission Control team at Johnson Space Center. Thor, training to become a Guidance Officer, served as Winds. I was Timeline, training to become a Flight Activities Officer. What was it like to be flight controllers?

My memoir, A Passion for Space, has a detailed account, but the short answer is, “Cool!” For a pair of physicists who like solving mysteries and learning new things, it was the best job in the world.

A favorite memory from STS-1 was the first TV download of the payload bay. Violent shaking during launch had dislodged wayward bolts and washers that floated out. (Remember from my November 2015 Science Snacks: things float in space because of freefall, not because there isn’t any gravity!) Also visible were dark areas on the engine pods where thermal tiles had shaken off.


Caption: The first television broadcast from the Space Shuttle (during its second orbit) showed a majestic view of Earth from space after the successful launch and opening of the payload bay doors, but also the dark squares of tiles missing off the orbital maneuvering pods on either side of the tail. (White dot is reflection in window.) NASA image, 1981.

I reacted to this transmission in typical flight controller fashion, with both awe and concern. Awe that the world’s first winged spaceship and its crew (John Young and Robert Crippen) had survived a never-before-tested launch on top of a giant fuel tank with boosters strapped to either side, and then proceeded to successfully open its ungainly doors to provide cooling and access to space. Amazing!

The concern was for what we didn’t know. The missing tiles were not in a critical area, but as we’d learn tragically in 2003, a hole in the wings or underside could cause Columbia to burn up during entry.

We didn’t yet have an arm to peer over the side, so management worked with the military to scan the underbelly of the orbiter. Flight controllers helped determine timing to get the lighting, orientation, and ground track just right for telescopes. Unfortunately, clouds interfered with data collection.

Thus flight controllers anxiously watched for signs of equipment overheating during the entry on April 14, 1981. With no relay satellites (first deployed on STS-6 in 1983), they endured 20 minutes of communications blackout during entry through the upper atmosphere.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when data resumed and showed them “perfectly nominal.” Young and Crippen landed safely in California. They returned to Houston later that day, and Thor and I joined the crowd to welcome our heroes home.

To learn more about the historic Space Shuttle Program, I encourage you to read books and visit exhibits at museums and NASA centers. (Or ask me questions at one of the events below!) And if you like solving mysteries and learning new things, you might try becoming a flight controller. It’s definitely a cool job!

Writing about Space

The anthology, Trajectories that contains my story, “The Breath of Mars” is now available. If you order after using the link from my website, I get a credit from Amazon and you get a big THANK YOU!

Speaking about Space

Look for me at the following events. Watch my website Contact page for updates.

Saturday, April 9, 11 am to 4:15 pm. Selling/signing books at Reach for the Stars STEM Festival, Rice University. Free, but preregistration required.

April 19-20. Staffing booth #2242 “Houston Authors,” Texas Library Association Annual Conference, GRB Convention Center, Houston.

Saturday, April 23, 10 am to 4:30 pm, Festival Author signing at Table 56 in Ballroom, panel on NF at 12:45 Room B, Ohioana Book Festival, Columbus, Ohio.

Saturday, May 7, 6:30 pm. NASA Enthusiasts, Chelsea Wine Bar, 4106 Nasa Pkwy, El Lago, TX 77586. Free, open to public.

Friday, May 20, Author visit, Woodridge Forest Middle School, Porter, TX. Speaking to 8th graders about their Future Space.

Saturday, May 28. Speaking at Gulf Coast Mensa Regional Gathering, Crowne Plaza Northwest-Brookhollow, 12801 Northwest Freeway, Houston. Open to public.

Saturday, June 18, panels 10-11 am and 1-2 pm. Comicpalooza, GRB Convention Center, Houston.

Saturday, June 25, Mars talk & teacher workshops, Center for Earth and Space Science Education, Tyler Junior College.

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,