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
“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
“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.