Flight directors seem to be a hardy lot. The first Mercury flight directors (Red-Kraft, White-Kranz, and Blue-Hodge) are still with us even though the years gather about them. Of the 77 American flight directors, only 5 have passed: #5 – Green Flight, Cliff Charlesworth, #8-Orange Flight, Pete Frank, #9-Purple Flight, Phil Shaffer, and #10-Crimson Flight, Don Puddy. A few days ago we lost Gray Flight, the 15th Flight Director, Gary Coen. He was my first boss at NASA.
Gary went to the GM Institute and studied automotive engineering. He probably told me how he came to work at NASA but the memory is lost to me now. He was a GNC/Prop guy on Gemini and used to regale us with stories about keeping track of the propellant in Gemini days when there was no accurate gas gage on the vehicle. Every pulse of a jet had to be counted, the mixture ratio hand applied, and the result laboriously tabulated to know how much propellant remained against how much might yet be required on each flight. He had the same job in Apollo for the CSM. They hotfired the SM thrusters on the launch pad late in the countdown to see if they were all still working. He was responsible not only for the propulsion systems but for the primitive inertial measurement gyro used in the command module. During Apollo 13 he was part of John Aaron’s team in the simulator trying to build a plan to bring the command module back to life without exceeding the battery limits.
Prior to the first Shuttle flight, Gary Coen was the head of the Prop/Booster Systems group of flight controllers. He hired and mentored many new college graduates into the traditions and procedures of Mission Control. Some of the folks under his tutelage went on to be leaders in spaceflight: Cleon Lacefield later became FD #21 – Orion Flight – and interestingly enough now is Lockheed-Martin’s Project Manager for the Orion crew exploration vehicle; FD #27- Phoenix Flight- Ron Dittemore later became Space Shuttle Program Manager and Vice President of ATK; FD #33 – Corona Flight – Linda Ham has held many senior management positions and is currently in the Constellation Program Office; FD #34 – Burgundy Flight – Richard Jackson went on to head up the contractors in charge of Mission Control; and the legacy of excellence that Gary started continues with former Propulsion officers and current Flight Directors #54 Onyx – Brian Lunney, #56 Topaz – Kathy Koerner, #57 Intrepid – Tony Ceccacci (who just lead the successful Hubble servicing mission), and #67 Apex – Mike Moses who is currently serving as Launch Integration Manager for Space Shuttle at KSC. Jenny Stein hasn’t been a Flight Director but learned well enough from Gary so that on STS-27, as Booster Officer, she prevented a two-SSME out contingency abort by coolly directing the crew to manage the failing redline sensors safely. Bill Gerstenmaier came to be a PROP officer under Gary’s tutelage and while Bill never became a Flight Director, he has done a few things of note around the agency. Oh, and me; I’m FD #28, Turquoise Flight. No other group in NASA Mission Operations has resulted in so many Flight Directors or senior NASA leaders. Some legacy there.
Gary was very mechanically inclined. He loved tinkering with cars and boats. He told us the story of one vacation where the family station wagon blew an engine in a small western town on Friday afternoon. The only service station in town was closed on weekends but Gary made a deal with the owner to use his lift and tools over the weekend. A quick trip to the local junk yard resulted in an engine that would work; and by Monday morning they left town with that used motor installed in the family vehicle. My mind boggles at the thought of doing that sort of thing alone. That was the kind of guy Gary was.
Gary loved to fish; he had a nice boat and took every opportunity to motor out from Galveston bay into the Gulf of Mexico in search of good fishing. He frequently invited co-workers to go with him. On one memorable trip about a month before the first shuttle flight, the boat carried all three shifts of certified PROP officers (Gary was Ascent) into the Gulf. Coming back in late, they ran upon rocks and started taking water. The Coast Guard came on scene and provided additional pumps and a tow back to the landing. This incident caused Flight Operations management to strongly encourage certified flight controllers to avoid “hazardous recreational activities” shortly before flight. Gary’s response? Fishing isn’t hazardous!
Gary’s leadership style was decidedly old school. Women were just beginning to be employed in engineering and mission control in the days leading up to STS-1. There was one memorable office meeting about “appropriate dress” that nearly got him fired. I’ll leave the details to your imagination.
Gary was selected to the Flight Director’s Office right about the time of STS-1. He served as PROP on the second shuttle flight because the new trainee (that would be me) wasn’t ready to solo until the third flight. Once in the FD office, Gary became responsible for transforming the newly invented abort mode to Spain to a certified, well supported mode that we now know as TAL (Trans-Atlantic Abort Landing). He worked tirelessly with the state department and foreign governments to pick appropriate runways; he was responsible for ensuring that they were properly equipped. He famously mispronounced (on purpose) the Moroccan landing field Ben Gear (it was Ben Guerir). Gary was also put in charge of the Landing Weather Rules and became almost the nemesis of the Space Flight Meteorology Group of forecasters. He insisted on engineering precision in that field which remains more an art than a science to this day.
Gary was lead flight director three times, responsible for the entire mission success of STS-51B, STS-35 (Astro), and STS-55 (Spacelab D-2). He served as Flight Director for Ascent 11 times and Entry 13 times (#2 on the all time record books).
Most of the Flight Directors have children who are college bound and that puts them on a budget. There was an unofficial contest to see which FD could have the oldest, ugliest car. Gary won the competition hands down by painting his very old Suburban with white latex housepaint – with a brush! The hood was done in flat black to keep down the glare. Some wag put T-38 stickers on it since the paint scheme matched that airplane.
Most importantly, Gary served as the US co-chair for the working group that established the operations interfaces and procedures used in MCC-H and MCC-M for the Shuttle/MIR program. This became the precedent and basis for the operations of the International Space Station.
In 1995 Gary retired so he could devote himself full time to his passion – fishing.
Unfortunately, Gary came from an age when smoking was acceptable. As long as I knew him, Gary chain smoked unfiltered Camels. In the old days, smoking was allowed in the offices and especially in Mission Control. I sat next to Gary so much I’m probably at some risk myself. When the edict came down for no smoking in any JSC facilities, I thought it was going to kill him . . . but it didn’t. Nor did it cause him to stop smoking.
Gary died of lung cancer October 5; the funeral will be Saturday the 17th.
All things considered, Gary Coen had a spectacular career. His contributions to human space flight didn’t get a lot of flashy notice, but he built an organization and mentored a group of folks that have achieved spectacular things.
No big NASA memorial has been announced although I expect JSC senior leadership will show up and present the family with a flag.
And I will miss him.
4 thoughts on “Gary the Gray”
Godspeed Gary – rest in peace.
Wayne – thank you so much for the incredible tribute and my heartfelt sympathy to Gary’s family, you and the entire NASA family on the loss of your colleague and friend.
Thank you for helping us all to “know” Gary. This is a wonderful, colorful tribute.
Thank-you for sharing your reminiscence of your boss and friend Gary Coen. Some of us will never be able to get enough of the stories of the people that have lead and shaped NASA; it is endlessly fascinating to read these accounts.
Prayers to the family and friends of Mr. Coen.
I was sleeping in the back of that Chevy when it blew its engine! The town was Idaho Falls. My mom, sister and I stayed in a hotel next door to the garage that Dad used to drop in the new motor. Not only did Dad install the motor, but he also made sure to install a temperature gauge. The reason he let the engine burn up in the first place was that the engine light never came on to indicate a problem until it was too late.
I also have an add to the hand painted Suburban story. He had kept that thing long after my sister and I had graduated. By this time, it had taken on a strange, permanent stench of fishing bait and cigarettes, but more importantly, it no longer had the horsepower to pull Dad’s boat. I went with Dad to trade it in. Creeping down Bay Area towards La Porte, Dad somehow had managed to coax it up to forty. We were soon deluged in a brown blizzard as the resulting forty mile an hour wind dislodged thousands of rust particles from the formerly black hood. Without missing a beat, Dad switched on the windshield wipers. Both of us couldn’t stop laughing the entire way to the car dealership. Amazingly, I think he got a grand for that truck in trade.
Dad was always eager to share his work at NASA with me. He told me he came to NASA after answering a classified ad in a newspaper, but chiefly to escape the harsh winters and snows of Michigan and Ohio. As I got older, I was able to appreciate more and more what he did and what he accomplished. I forget which shuttle flight it was, but he had invited me to watch a launch from the observation room in MCC-H. Anyway, on that day, the countdown wound to zero and the main engines lit – but promptly shut off after about a second. No one moved. The fire suppression system on the pad doused the rear of the shuttle with water. Dad told everyone to monitor their screens for any sudden increases in pressure to help out the folks at KSC. After what seemed to me like an hour, but in reality was only a few short minutes, the danger had passed and the crew was safed. I may be mistaken, but I think he told me that he was on the committee that recommended that the shuttle’s main engines run for a second or two to make sure everything was working properly prior to the SRBs lighting up.
It’s been a tough year since Dad had been diagnosed with cancer, and even tougher now that he is gone. Sadly, the pain from the pneumonia that preceded the cancer diagnosis was the thing that made him finally quit smoking. He had tried nicotine patches, even hypnosis to try to stop, but nothing took.
Thanks for your recollection, Mr. Hale, and for everyone’s thoughts and prayers.
Gary the Gray’s son,
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