STS-93 and the Flight Director Office

FD Group 1999, Flight Director Party at Linda's house, 1999

One of the most interesting shuttle flights was STS-93 which put the Chandra Advanced X-Ray Telescope into space. Not only was it the first shuttle flight to be commanded by a woman – Eileen Collins – and the heaviest payload to that time – 59,000 lbs – but we had the most eventful launch scenario of all the shuttle missions – clearly a close call which turned out well.

But before I start, some background is in order. Especially about the Flight Director office as it existed in 1999.

Being a Space Shuttle Flight Director was the best job I ever held; it was the toughest, the scariest, and the most rewarding. I never wanted to leave the office but was propelled out by events beyond my control – something I talked about in my rambles about the Columbia accident earlier this year.

The FD office held the best people in the world and at the same time many of whom caused me to contemplate homicide. Being a Flight Director was not for the faint of heart; we held an awesome responsibility to the crew, to the program, and to the nation. We learned early not only not to suffer fools gladly but not to suffer fools at all. Every Flight Director had a highly tuned BS detector and would swiftly attend to anyone who was not prepared, organized, and thorough. Every Flight Director thought that he (or she) was the best in the office and the other guys and gals needed help.
Monday morning staff meeting in the Flight Director office resembled a school of sharks swirling about looking to devour the weakest member in the room. It could be intense. Most of the office chiefs encouraged this behavior. It made you really think through any position on a controversial subject or approach. As we went around the table, each FD had to describe the status of an upcoming shuttle flight for which he had been assigned responsibility. Nobody got through their discussion unchallenged. It was brutal but many mistakes were corrected early because shortcomings in a plan were identified on Monday morning.

As a flight approached and integrated training schedules started appearing, the team of Flight Directors would be assigned; the Lead Flight Director generally started at least a year in advance but the rest of the team could be lined out as little as six weeks before a flight. The Lead got the primary shift where the biggest activities occurred during the crew work day; this was generally called the Orbit 1 shift and covered the period from just after crew breakfast through the middle of the crew ‘afternoon’ – which could be any time on the clock in Houston. Another experienced flight director would be assigned to the Orbit 2 shift which wound up the crew day and got them in bed. If a rookie flight director was assigned, he would draw the Planning shift when the crew was asleep and plans for the next day were modified as required and uplinked for the crew to read when they awoke. And of course there would be the Ascent/Entry Flight Director (sometimes split for two) whose job was to get the mission off the ground and back down again – and who paid little attention to the ‘cg management device’ found in the payload bay.

Additional flight directors could be assigned depending on the type of flight; for ISS assembly or logistics flights a single flight director was sent to the Russian control center (TsUP or MCC-M) to help our partners understand what the crazy Americans were doing. For a flight with the big Boeing upper stage – the IUS – which was the case for STS-93, a Flight Director was assigned to travel to the USAF/Boeing control center at Sunnyvale, California, to keep those guys in line with what Houston wanted to do. And finally there was the Mission Ops Director. For all the early Shuttle flights there was only one MOD – the legendary Gene Kranz. The function of the MOD was to keep the program leadership, the headquarters guys, and any other management lookie-loos who might be present out of the way of the flight control team. After Gene’s retirement, the position of MOD was circulated between senior managers (always former flight directors) in the Mission Operations organization and some of the senior flight directors. For STS-93 the MOD of record was Randy Stone, former Flight Director, Director of Mission Operations, and an expert on the IUS. But Randy was never an Ascent Flight Director, so as senior A/E FD in the office, I was tapped out to be the MOD just for the launch and landing shifts. John Shannon was the Ascent/Entry Flight Director, Brian Austin was the Lead (Orbit 1) Flight Director.

So midway through the countdown of STS-93, I would take my seat in Mission Control, right behind John Shannon, and right next to Brian Austin – who could not stay away. Everything that happened later, I blame on being sandwiched between two Texas Aggies . . .

Well, maybe not.

To be continued

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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12 Responses to STS-93 and the Flight Director Office

  1. Beth says:

    What a great mission to write about, Wayne; I’m looking forward to chapter 2!


  2. Steve Pemberton says:

    By coincidence I am flying into CLL tomorrow morning (College Station) for a few days in Aggieland, so I will be looking for the continuation of the story while I am there. My father as well as two cousins graduated from Texas A&M and I always enjoyed seeing the Aggie paraphernalia displayed both on and off the ground during Shuttle flights, as well as the occasional gentle boasts/barbs about it during press conferences. I always assumed that there was a lot more of that going on off camera that we didn’t know about.

    Hopefully someone will put together a book containing recollections from the A&M flight control personnel. The Aggie angle would provide an interesting perspective and would provide an avenue to hear some more stories from the trenches from that remarkable era, supplementing the great perspective and insight that we have been getting on all of this from your articles.

  3. walt pinkston says:

    OK, you got my attention. I’m here, ready and waiting for the story to continue!!!

    walt pinkston Friendswood, TX iPhone 713-594-9684 sent from my MacBook Air

    Consciousness: that annoying time between naps.

  4. Wayne, I was the A/E DPS Support (DPS Backroom Operator) for STS-93. I remember the launch very well. I won’t give any “spoilers”, but I can hardly wait to read “the rest of the story”…

  5. Philip Sloss says:

    A fun read, thanks for posting. Also an interesting picture…I don’t see the Weather Flight in the group…

  6. Bryan Austin says:

    That’s Bryan, with a “Y”…like College Station….like Aggieland.
    How soon Wayne forgets…

    Bryan Austin
    STS-93 Lead Flight Director
    Texas A&M Class of ’81

  7. Frank Ch. Eigler says:

    “cg management device”? What a hilarious nickname for the payload (if my guess is correct).

    • waynehale says:

      Standard comment from the Ascent/Entry guys – all that stuff that happened between launch and landing was just annoying to us!

      • Chris Hudson says:

        Wayne, I once witnessed a confrontation between an Orbiter guy and a Payload Integration guy very nearly come to blows when the Orbiter guy used the CG Management Device for an IUS/TDRSS payload. I physically restrained the PI guy until his boss sent him out of the room. God, I miss those days!

      • Yusef Johnson says:

        Here in my present job, I am paying in spades for my not paying attention to all that stuff that went on between launch and landing!!!

  8. Yusef Johnson says:

    STS-93……..and then I would then spend the next 13 years chasing contingency abort black zones…….At least it would provide me for an excuse to accquire many hours of flying the SMS…

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