Guiding the Space Shuttle—and the Trajectory of Space Exploration
In his new memoir, Paul Dye, NASA’s longest-serving flight director, reflects on working on the Shuttle program and what it takes to make it to the center seat of Mission Control
When Paul Dye first stepped into Houston’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a Cooperative Education Student in 1980, he was a third-year aeronautical engineering major from the University of Minnesota who dreamt of working on airplanes. The agency was ramping up the Space Shuttle program and staffing up. That’s what led NASA to look for co-op students (think interns-plus) and to select Dye as one of them. But when he entered JSC, he didn’t know what he’d be working on.
Dye was thrown into the world of operations, doing two stints as a co-op then accepting a job in the Flight Operations Division as a junior flight controller after graduating in 1982. Thirty-one years later, he retired as the longest-serving flight director in U.S. history. He was with the Shuttle program from its earliest days, through the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the development of a relationship with the Russian space agency, the construction of the International Space Station, and the end of the Shuttle program in 2011. He sat center seat on 39 missions, nine of them as lead flight director.
Dye takes readers (and space nerds) into JSC’s Mission Control Center and behind the scenes of the Shuttle program in his memoir Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control, which was published in July. He spoke with The Elective about the book, his time at NASA, and what he’s excited about when it comes to the future of space travel.
NASA (author photo), Hachette Books (cover)
The Space Shuttle program hasn't been gone for that long, but reading the book and seeing photos of the Shuttle are reminders of how cool of a vehicle that was.
It really is an amazing bird. It's hard for me to ever think it's not still flying because I just think about it all the time.
With the long experience you had with the program, was it difficult to organize and write this book?
The difficult thing was getting my head wrapped around the fact that I couldn't tell the whole story. When Chris Kraft wrote his book about being flight director, it was about a couple of years, basically during the Mercury program [in the early-to-mid-1960s]. When Gene Kranz wrote his book, it was about Apollo and that was a couple of years. The Shuttle program lasted 30 years. Finding a focus was tricky. It took me a long time to finally wrap my head around the fact that all I could do was tell some stories, my stories. If I tried to tell the whole story, I would have written an encyclopedia. I found a great editor, who is very much an enthusiast, and I said, "What would you like to see in the book? I think I started with 20 chapters, and he said, "Let's shoot for about 12," and that helped focus it down and I was able to combine some things and make it work.
I didn't want to write a chronological biography—you know, I was born in a little log cabin in northern Minnesota kind of thing—but I realized this kind of story has to be more or less chronological or it doesn't make sense. Everything builds on everything else. The first two chapters are what I call the educational portion of the book. Without giving you the background on the systems and the operations, throughout the rest of the book I would be constantly trying to explain what everything was and it would break up the stories to a certain extent. So, I figured, the people who want to read this stuff are going to have to do a little bit of homework in the first two chapters. And once they get through that, they can understand the rest of the stories.
What was your earliest space memory?
My earliest space memory had to have been a Mercury flight. I can't tell you which one... Maybe I remember Alan Shepard's flight. I remember watching helicopters pluck space capsules out of the water on TV. Because I've seen so many missions now, it's hard to tell you which ones those might have been. I built model airplanes when I was a kid, and I also remember getting a Gemini model kit. I think there was also a Mercury model in that set; this was before Apollo was flying.
Did you ever want to be an astronaut?
I always wanted to be an astronaut. But I also wanted to be a pilot, a fireman, and a scuba diver. I wanted to be everything; most little boys do. I wanted to be Edmund Hillary and I wanted to be everything, and I was able to accomplish an awful lot of that stuff in my life. So that's pretty cool.
Space shuttle Atlantis is seen as it launches from pad 39A on July 8, 2011, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The launch of Atlantis, STS-135, was the final flight of the shuttle program.
There’s a part in the book where you and your fellow flight director trainees go through some of the crew training. What did you learn that maybe you didn't expect about being an astronaut?
I think the biggest thing people don't recognize about being an astronaut has nothing to do with doing it. It's what the job is.
In the Shuttle era, we had two kinds of astronauts: pilot astronauts and mission specialists astronauts. Pilot astronauts basically came as military test pilots. These are guys who were the best in their flight class in basic training, so they got their choice of what they wanted to do when they got into a squadron. Then they were the best in their squadron. When they get done being the best in their squadron, they were chosen to go to test pilot school. When they finished that, they were one of the top two or three people in their class, so they became test pilots. Their next job in the military was flying a desk. But they can apply to an astronaut job. They go to Houston, take off the uniform and still get paid the same, they get to fly T-38s 15 hours a month, and they get to eventually fly in space. That's pretty cool. It's a nice job. And then after about five years, you'd get a flight, and then maybe you'd cycle back and get another flight in another two years. If you were a mission specialist astronaut, you were the top oceanographer. Everybody in oceanography knew you. You applied to be an astronaut, went to Houston, did two years of astronaut candidate training, and then went to meetings for the next five years waiting for a flight. Then you got your flight, and you come back and they say "Great, you did a super job. You'll get another flight in four years." And you go, "Boy, this isn't what I wanted to do, just sit in meetings all time," or have an occasional training. So you say, "I'll go back to being an oceanographer." You haven't been an oceanographer for eight years. Your field is gone.
The actual day-to-day job of being an astronaut, unless you really made it exciting... There were some folks who got a little bit bitter about it. People don't realize that a very small percentage of being an astronaut is flying in space. It's an awful lot of time being an engineer, sitting in meetings, and talking about flight plans and talking about how we're going to make this latch on the galley work better.
One of the things I appreciate about the book is that it’s not about being an astronaut but rather the sort of day-to-day work that went into making this program happen.
Right. I have lots of astronaut friends who have written really fun books. But they're all the same book: This is what it's like to be an astronaut. I felt that it's important to have books from the other perspective. If you want to be in the space program, the odds are that you're not going to be an astronaut. You're going to do something else in the space program, and it's important people know there are tremendously exciting things to do in the program even if you're not an astronaut.
When did you learn that being a flight director or a flight controller was a job that you could have?
When I was accepted as a co-op student at NASA at JSC, I had absolutely no idea what I would be doing when I got to Houston. I didn't know operations from engineering or anything else. But they assigned me to the operations group, based primarily, I think, because of my background—I was already a professional diver and a pilot—they said, "Well, you understand real time, quick decision making." So I showed up in the Control Center and I walked into the room and there was this visceral feeling of, "Wow, this is cool." No two days are alike; it's not just 8-to-5, show up, sit at your desk, do whatever for eight hours, and go home. It’s a lifestyle where your schedule changes every day. One day you're sitting in a simulator, the next day you're in a Control Center, the next day you're doing some meetings, the next day you're doing something else. It just is a really exciting way to spend your life. I didn't really understand the organizational structure until I got there and realized, "Oh, that's the flight director. He's in charge. That's really a cool job." I'm wired in a way that I just want to know everything. I don't have a pathological need to be the one who makes the decision. I just want to know everything that's going on. I want to know all the inside stuff. And the flight director is the one that knows everything. So it was a natural fit.
Paul Dye (left) sits at the flight director console in Mission Control. Astronaut Shannon Lucid at the CAPCOM console (right) stays in close contact with Dye as she talks and listens to Mike Fossum and Ron Garan during their July 12, 2011, spacewalk.
You write about how, when starting at NASA, you were working alongside veterans of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. What was that like?
It was awesome. Our office at that time was on the same floor as the astronaut office, and you go into the restroom and you're standing next to a guy who walked on the moon. But we're all just people, you know? I vividly remember one time walking out to the parking lot and watching a guy try to jumpstart a car and drawing all sorts of sparks because he was connecting positive to negative and negative to positive. He was a guy who had walked on the moon. And I thought, “Okay—so we're all human!” It was this weird meeting-your-heroes kind of thing.
What was it like seeing the Shuttle for the first time?
It was one of those experiences where you almost start to vibrate inside. It's like, "Wow, this is really it. This is a machine that has been to space and back." It was just one of those moments where you go, "Most people will never get to do this." After a while, well, that's just what I do. It's no big deal. But that first time, it's a life-changing moment and incredibly exciting.
You write a lot about not getting complacent in the job, that lives were on the line. But did the work or the program ever feel routine?
Yes. Routine is what we look for in flight operations. It's a very weird disconnect. We fly airplanes and we fly spaceships because it's really cool and exciting, but your goal is to make the flight as unexciting as possible. A lot of excitement comes when something unusual happens, and you'd rather not have something unusual happen because then something bad can happen. Our unofficial motto was, "Mission Control: Making the most exciting thing in the world as boring as possible for 50 years." You want your flight from Pittsburgh to Denver to be as boring as possible. The most exciting thing you want to have happen is that they gave you two bags of peanuts instead of one. You'd rather not have a turbine blade thrown off the engine and come through a window, because that would be a really bad day. So yes, it became routine. And every once in a while, you would have to stop and pinch yourself. Flying to the Space Station every time seems routine, but it's still an incredibly exciting thing you're doing.
The space shuttle Atlantis is seen on July 10, 2011, over the Bahamas prior to a perfect docking with the International Space Station. Part of a Russian Progress spacecraft which is docked to the station is in the foreground.
What is the Shuttle program's greatest contribution to our everyday lives?
I think the one that probably most people don't recognize that is really significant is the advances in medical instrumentation and monitoring. We did a lot of volunteer test-subject stuff at NASA. "Hey, we need you to fly in the Vomit Comet and test your vestibular stuff." That was fun, and it was good for science. I remember wearing a Holter monitor, which is a portable heart monitor, and you had this box that hung on your hip that was the size of an early Walkman. It was monstrous.. Now if my doctor wants to do a Holter monitor on me, it's a little dongle about the size of a quarter that hangs on a necklace and a couple of leads that stick on your chest and you don't even know it's there. That's the kind of stuff that came out during those years.
The other thing that the Shuttle program gave, which is an intangible, is the knowledge that of course humans live in space. When the first people went into space, it was miraculous or it was insane that that could happen. When Edmund Hillary first stood on the summit of Everest, that was a huge moment. And now if you pay $25,000, somebody will carry you to the top of Everest. The thing people don't necessarily recognize is how the Shuttle made space a routine part of the human experience.
And now it's a routine part of everyday experience.
That's the double-edged sword. The more routine you make it, the less important it seems to people and to budgets. "Hey, we really need to spend money on this." "No we don't. It's just routine. It's a bus that just goes back and forth to the Space Station." "Space Station? What are they doing up there? It doesn't do us any good." Why do we even bother going to space? Why do we explore? What good came of it? And I have no idea. You never know when you're sinking money into exploration what you're going to get out of it, but you have to believe that it almost always ends up being a benefit. So you just have to do it on faith. Going back to the moon, going to Mars, it's going to be very, very expensive. But humankind will benefit from it. I believe we have finite resources on this planet, and if we continue to grow as a species we need to be looking for ways to expand.
What should a young person interested in the space program do today so that they can do that kind of work tomorrow?
Take all your math and science, especially physics, and engineering. You need to do well in those subjects, but you also need to learn to be a self-starter. Get leadership experience in something. Scouting was my early leading leadership experience; I'm an Eagle Scout. But you can do it in sports, clubs, in all sorts of different stuff. And then it's really important to develop a get-your-hands-dirty ability, whether you're a mechanic on a car or an airplane, or you do science that requires you to do experiments, or you go out in the field to study geology—you want to get out of the classroom and work with your hands. That teaches you problem solving and troubleshooting. You need to be able to solve problems—and that doesn't mean solve word problems, although that's important, but you need to solve mechanical problems and experimental problems and things like that. You have to get out of the classroom. That will prepare you better for wherever you want to go.
I always tell people that it's really great to have the goal of being an astronaut or flight director or an airline pilot, but you might not get that. When we select astronauts, we have 300 applicants who are 120% qualified, and we're going to select 10. That's not great odds. And if your sole goal in life was to be an astronaut, you're going to be very disappointed. But if your goal in life is to be a really cool scientist or pilot or whatever and, "Wow, it would be neat if I got an astronaut job too," that's the way to live a happy life. You don't want to be too single-minded. I didn't become an astronaut. I became a flight director, and I really had a happy life.
Flight director Paul Dye (right) and spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) Megan McArthur monitor data during the inspection of the wings' leading edge and nose cap of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, September 10, 2006.
What do you miss most about the job?
Being part of a team of highly qualified people doing really difficult work on split-second timing. I dearly miss sitting in the Control Center with a team that's really clicking. I do not miss the bureaucracy of the government. It gets to the point where you go, "Really? We've been working on this new proposal for a program for a couple years and now they were told to stop working on it? We wasted all that time." That part's hard, but I really miss being in the Control Center with a great team of people. That was magic, and it always will be.
What are you most excited about in terms of the space program or space travel today or what might be on the horizon?
I think the commercialization [of space travel] is a great thing. NASA was designed as an exploration-type agency, as an R&D organization, not as a production airline thing. So you R&D at NASA and you explore at NASA, and you take what you learn and you throw it out there to the public. We put our ideas out there and a guy like Elon Musk takes everything we learned, and builds a spaceliner. I think that's really cool. That's what we need to be doing; those guys are going to increase the flight rate, make space access much more normal and easier, and then NASA can go on to go to the moon and go on to Mars and do all those other things.
What do you think your legacy is at NASA?
My real contribution was building the next generation of people who are going to continue to do this. I put a lot of emphasis on training the next generation of flight controllers to make good decisions and inspiring them to be the best they can be, and to be far better than I was. Training the next generation was something I spent a lot of time on, to make sure people were prepared to take the next step, to put permanent bases on the moon. Humanity has a permanent base in space. There has never been a moment in the past 20 years that we haven't had a human being in space, on the Space Station. And now we need to make that happen on the moon.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.