Flight Director Fables

Aesop’s fables have been famous for two millennia.  They are obviously fictional stories – animals talking and such – but they are still useful for teaching important concepts to children – and adults.


When I joined the Flight Director office there were a number of fables that we were taught.  Supposedly true, I cannot say that they really are.  But the moral of these stories was the point.  I’ll share just two with you today.


First Fable:  how to end your career quickly.


Gemini 8 was as close a call as American had in space up to that time.  Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott had just completed America’s first space docking between their Gemini spacecraft and an Agena target vehicle.  Suddenly, the stack started spinning up for no apparent reason.  Emergency undock was performed by the crew who hoped that the problem was with the Agena.  It was not, the spin rate increased more dramatically after separation.  Armstrong shut off the Gemini spacecraft’s primary attitude control system and activated the secondary system which was designed for limited use during re-entry.  Attitude control was regained, the crisis averted, everybody started breathing again. 


The Flight Rules called for an immediate deorbit once the re-entry attitude control system was activated; it had limited fuel and limited life.  So Flight Director John Hodge (Blue Flight) had the team execute a rapid deorbit to the secondary landing site in the Pacific Ocean near the destroyer USS Mason.  You might think that was the right thing to do.


Unfortunately . . . .

NASA management found out about the situation after the crew was in the ocean.  According to the legend, Hodge did not take the time to pick up the phone and call the Program Manager, the Center Director, or even his boss, the Chief of the Flight Director office.  The situation was stable, and even though waiting around was not necessarily a good thing, there was no reason that a couple of hours delay would have significantly increased the crew risk.  Upper management was severely out of sorts with Blue Flight because they were not called in to review a critical action that really could have waited, despite what the Flight Rules called for.


Bottom line:  John Hodge never served as Flight Director in Mission Control again.


Now, that is the way the story was told to us wide-eyed Flight Director wannabees.  Is it true?  Is it accurate?  Is it complete?  I have no way of knowing.  Probably not. 


But that is not the point of the fable.  The moral of the story for all rookie Flight Directors is ALWAYS INVOLVE YOUR MANAGEMENT.   Any time that a critical action can reasonably be delayed for even a few minutes GET ON THE PHONE WITH THE BOSS.  No matter what the Flight Rules say.  After all, it’s just your career on the line . . .


Second Fable:  Lies will catch up with you.


A long time ago, it seems hard to imagine now, there were no privacy laws and the press was ALWAYS interested in crew health.  Since about 60% of all astronauts have ‘space adaptation syndrome’ for the first three days of weightlessness.  The press could always get a good barf story.  Sometimes it seems like journalists never left the 5th grade.  Today a Flight Director can respond to questions about crew upchuckitis by saying “Detailed discussions about crew health are covered by the medical privacy act.  I can tell you that there has been no mission impact from any crew health issues.”  There is rarely any mission impact these days because we have learned to build a light schedule the first few days to allow the crew to get past the need for the emesis bags. 


In the early days of shuttle, such niceties did not exist.  Every eight hours the offgoing Flight Director had a post-shift press conference and had to withstand the barrage of questions from the media, who were just hoping to get some human interest story out of the tight lipped and technical NASA officials.  John Cox, Granite Flight, kept drawing the “space sickness” questions.  He made the huge mistake of putting out a fib:  ‘Crew is doing fine, no problems to speak of”  in one of the early press conferences.  A day later, the crew was definitely NOT doing fine, activities had been cancelled.  But Granite Flight kept up the pretense.  The press corps was suspicious.  By the third day Granite Flight’s denials fell apart and the media went into witch-hunt frenzy.  The video tape of that heated press conference is kept in the Flight Director training catalog and it is ugly with a capital U.  The head of Flight Medicine, Dr. Sam Poole, had to come in and save Dr. Cox.  Sam put a soft spin on things and more or less diffused the issue, but the damage was done.  Granite Flight’s credibility with the media was in the dumpster.


Now, is that the entire, completely accurate story?  Probably not.  But we all had to watch that press conference videotape knowing that we would be in that hot seat in the very near future.  The moral of the story:  DON’T LIE TO THE PRESS.  They will find out sooner or later and it will be very bad. 


Whenever people ask me how to deal with the media, I reply: “The first rule is tell the truth, never lie.  You will be found out and your credibility will be gone from then on.”  I’ve had lots of practice with press events after learning that less from poor old Granite Flight, and I can confirm it’s true.


John Cox was a great Flight Director and served for many mission.  I have a great deal of respect for him, not the least of which is that he dug his way out of that hole.


Remember, everybody is useful, sometimes just as an example of what not to do.

5 thoughts on “Flight Director Fables”

  1. Interesting blog entry as ever. Not sure I like the possibility that John Hodge MIGHT have been removed from Flight Director status because he made a call a never informed upper management, sounds like petulance if it is true and so I hope it is not.

    As for dealing with the press…. Well, I’ve only ever had to deal with them once, it wasn’t anything as direct as you’ve had to deal with and even then it was quite an experience. I’ve always thought that most people at NASA walk quite a tightrope with the press as a single thought said slightly wrong or a possible jokey response can easily be taken the wrong way and reported around the world.

    I still think the dressing down Paul Hill gave some journlists on the STS-114 mission was absolutely brilliant.

  2. Why does NASA expect Flight Directors to do media? I have watched a few during the current STS-128 mission and those Flight Directors looked and sounded very tired and should have been on their way home to bed not spending an extra 40 minutes doing media. It does make interesting TV BUT isn’t NASA Senior Management and PAO pushing it a bit too far (specially when the same 6 journalists often ask the same questions 6 different ways?).

  3. I was not going to comment here, but since you have two blog posts up with the importance of being truthful highlighted, I thought I’d comment.

    Fable One: Are the Flight Rules actually rules, or are they more like “guidelines”? NASA has violated its “flight rules” on many occasions, STS-51L being perhaps the most visible of them. If you’re going to have to involve superiors for every decision, you compromise the intent of having the rules in the first place! They are meant to remove “management by committee” from the operating path.

    I can get another career…I cannot get another conscience.

    Ask Linda Ham if she’d do anything differently if she suddenly found herself at the meeting where she said “I don’t think there is much we can do.”

    That statement is a far cry from “failure is not an option”.

    Second fable: what Nobel physicist was it who said that you cannot lie to nor cheat the laws of nature?

    God bless John Hodge for returning his crew safely home!

  4. I thought that flight directors had “absolute responsibility” during a flight, regardless of what any upper management says? If it’s a crew safety/flight rules issue, then I would expect them to do whatever is neccesary. Posting this blog entry basically makes the early NASA management look to be bullies.

  5. I think Hodge got a pretty bump deal, after all he claims that he heard Armstrong say: “We've got serious problems here. We're tumbling end over end up here. We're disengaged from the Agena.” and under mission rules, Gemini had to return to earth as soon as possible.

    I mean Hodge was faced with the first life-and-death emergency situation in the U.S. space program!

    Difficult call to make

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