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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (CA)

Noah J. Michelsohn |
September 23, 2019

Preparing for Flight

As the main engines ignite and the countdown ticks down toward launch, eyes around the world see brave explorers setting off on a daring journey. What goes unseen is the significant planning and training effort that the Houston-based Flight Operations Directorate (FOD) completes to prepare astronauts for their missions to space.

After nearly 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station (ISS), NASA’s missions are gearing up to become even more daring as astronauts prepare to fly to station in new commercial vehicles and, eventually, to the Gateway and Moon in NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

With these new goals and destinations, FOD must combat the challenges with preparation, discipline and a commitment to protecting our space-faring explorers.

“Spaceflight is hard, especially to go to the Moon and Mars, and we want to do it safely—but the safest thing we could do is not try,” said Steve Koerner, director of FOD at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

With the mindset to push the boundaries of human exploration, but do it as safely as possible, Koerner leads a wide-ranging team that is responsible for the selection and protection of astronauts, as well as planning, training and flying human spaceflight and aviation missions. FOD personnel include instructors and trainers, flight directors and flight controllers in mission control, divers at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), mechanics and pilots at Ellington Field and, of course, astronauts.

Koerner greeting astronaut Anne McClain at Ellington Field upon return from the International Space Station.

“One of the really special things about FOD is the diversity of our team,” Koerner said. “Sometimes I find myself pausing and asking what makes this large team so cohesive, and I think it is being united around a common goal. We are here to fly people in space, successfully and safely.”

While everyone holds vastly different roles, from controlling the ISS to training for spacewalks, the entire team unites to ensure that astronauts can live and learn in space, achieving new missions and learning more about how humans react to microgravity.

FOD is currently focused on flying the space station and expanding its capabilities with upcoming commercial crew missions. But, as the team explores creative ways to capitalize on station’s foothold in low-Earth orbit, they are also laser-focused on a future with the Artemis program.

“Houston is the central hub for International Space Station missions, so taking care of station is of utmost importance,” Koerner said. “It’s really about utilizing station as a foundation to learn more about living in space, and applying what we learn to plan for Artemis missions and how to live and work on the Moon.”

While astronauts are the only members of the team flying on station, the entire team gets to benefit from the training for Artemis. For example, the flight control teams are constantly refining techniques and strategies for controlling various missions. As they monitor the ISS around the clock, they are also conducting simulations to prepare for future missions with a new commercial crew vehicle fleet and Orion.

Other FOD teams prepare astronauts to live and work on the ISS by simulating microgravity and the high stress environment of space. Trainers at the NBL are able to prepare astronauts for spacewalks by simulating weightlessness underwater and pilots at Ellington are able to put the crews in dynamic, high-stress environments aboard T-38 aircraft to prepare astronauts to respond positively and work as a team during high pressure situations.

While these practices are not novel, they are constantly being critically examined and improved to ensure crews are as safe as possible, gaining the skillsets that will aid them on Artemis missions to the lunar surface.

“The most important preparation that we are doing to fly astronauts on Artemis missions is continuing to fly astronauts to the space station,” Koerner said. “The bulk of our training for station is skills-based, so it correlates to the same types of activities that astronauts will need to do on Gateway and on the Moon.”

Koerner (back of image near pillar) attending an expedition 60 pre-launch event.

With exotic destinations and innovative spacecraft on the threshold, this is one of the most exciting times in recent history for the astronaut corps to be preparing to fly. Astronauts are explorers by nature and usually eager to fly, but Koerner recognizes that although we want to get to new destinations quickly, safety is paramount. He’s making sure that NASA is doing everything possible to keep crews safe.

“I’m proud of the risk takers in this organization—the astronauts who strap themselves on the rockets,” Koerner said. “The challenge is not going to be telling them to get on the rocket, it’s telling them, ‘Hey wait, it’s not ready for you just yet.’”

It won’t be too much longer, though. Commercial crew missions are rapidly approaching, and Artemis is preparing to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024.

Koerner believes that the goal to land astronauts on the Moon and then go to Mars is both important and achievable. He sees it as a worthy human endeavor, with benefits for life on Earth with expanded access to resources and a growing space economy.

But with every adventure, part of the excitement is the journey to a far-off destination with new discoveries to be had. As NASA aims for the south pole of the Moon, FOD will be there, making sure that the crews can accomplish these missions both quickly and safely.

“I’ve heard people ask, ‘Why don’t we slow down and do it right?’” Koerner said. “And I respond, ‘Why don’t we speed up and do it right?’”

Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center

Steve Koerner is director of the Flight Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center. This story is part 13 of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find  previous stories on the directors website.

Steve Koerner, director of the Flight Operations Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Steve Koerner, director of the Flight Operations Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center.