Gary the Gray

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.


Getting Myself Fired

In 1985 I was a Propulsion Systems Officer in the Space Shuttle Mission Control team.  I was responsible for the reaction control system that was absolutely vital to orient the space shuttle outside the atmosphere, and for the orbital maneuvering system which provides the final push to get the orbiter into orbit and the deorbit burn to come home.  These liquid rocket systems are a mechanical engineer’s delight:  lots of plumbing, valves, some smoke and fire, knowledge of orbital mechanics required, thermal control, crew interaction, and software.  We had a great team and I was proud to be part of most of the early shuttle missions.  But it was time to make a move to supervisor, and in the spring of the year I was selected to be the leader of the INCO group.

INCO stands for Integrated Communications — that’s just about what you think:  radios, recorders, instrumentation, television.  That discipline is an Electrical Engineer’s delight.  Not mine.  I took exactly one EE course in college and nearly flunked it.  But the big bosses said it was OK, I would be a supervisor who knew all the processes and procedures for Mission Control.  I didn’t need to understand the technical stuff, they told me, that was what the staff was for.

That was a lie.

Very quickly I found out that understanding the basics of radios and digital electronics was absolutely mandatory for supervising the INCO team. 

Oh, and the INCOs were responsible for the coffee pots for the MCC — but that story will have to wait for another post.

I decided that I would have to go through the process to be certified as an INCO if I were to lead this group.  This is not easy!  The INCO team is made up of the shift leader in the FCR (who you see on TV) – he is the guy who owns the title “INCO” and responds directly to the Flight Director; then in the “back room” are the support staff:  RF COMM, and INST.  The entry level position was INST.  The Instrumentation Officer is responsible for the onboard telemetry, the signal conditioners, the engineering recorders, etc. 

I understood nothing about any of this stuff.  But the INCO folks recognized that they would have to teach me their job if I were going to be an adequate leader, so they all pitched in.  I read the books, went to the lectures, observed the operations in the MCC, did all my homework.  Then I was ready to start working in the MCC for the integrated simulations.  With the astronaut crew in the space shuttle simulator in building 5, and an entire Mission Control team in building 30, these sessions were intense.  The Simulation Supervisor and his training team were diabolically clever in developing training lessons where interlocking malfunctions could appear insurmountable – but which a good crew and MCC team could overcome.

On my final day as the supervisor of the INCO section, I participated in an integrated Ascent simulation.  We would practice launching the shuttle over and over and over again, with the clock picking up about 2 minutes before liftoff, and as soon as the shuttle cleared the tower malfunction after malfunction appearing in short order.  Most of the time the crew survived.  Sometimes the shuttle even made it to orbit.  But it was intense.  And back in the office, all the Flight Control management is listening to the comm loops to hear how well the team is doing.

It was an artifact of the system that when the simulator starts at T-2, not all the communications system is in the right configuration.  In real life, the INCO team has many hours to command all the various components to the optimum conditions for launch, but in an integrated Ascent sim, there are two minutes to get everything configured properly onboard.  This meant that the INCO, the RF COMM, and the INST were all banging away on their command keyboards furiously to get all the commands sent to the (simulated) shuttle before lift off.  In those ancient days (well before PCs and point&click logic), the consoles had the Multifunction Command and Display Keyboard.  Basically this was a bunch of pushbuttons which had the hexadecimal alphabet on the keys plus one larger key marked “Command Execute.”  You had to know the hexadecimal code for the command you wanted to send; have the dexterity to type it in correctly; confirm on the computer display the code was entered properly; then hit Command Execute for the big mainframe computer on the ground floor of the MCC to send the command.  A fraction of a second later the command would be received at the shuttle (real or simulated) and if everything lined up properly Things Would Happen.  The Right Thing, you hoped.

So with each run, my job was to start the MADS recorder – capturing the “ancillary” data for post flight analysis.  As soon as the simulator went to run at T-2 minutes, I would carefully type in the hexadecimal command for MADS recorder start, verify that code appeared properly on my computer screen, and push the command execute button. 

Ascent simulations are not very interesting to the INST operator because Sim Sup generally targets the bigger systems — main engines fail, external tanks leak, fire breaks out in the cockpit, stuff like that.   Ascent runs take only about 15 minutes, then you debrief, turn the simulator around, and start again.  Many times.  After all day, I got pretty good at starting the MADS recorder.  Ticky tickety tick, execute.  Next run:  ticky tickety, tick, execute.  And repeat. 

On the last run of the day, I punched in the numbers by rote, disregarded the computer screen and hit the execute key.  “WHY DID THE FM TRANSMITTER JUST TURN OFF” echoed in my headset.  “INST – YOU SENT THE WRONG COMMAND!”  Uh oh.  Just one little keystroke wrong.  I was the goat.  

The debrief was not fun. 

When I got back to my office, there was a note on my door from the Division Chief:  “Come see me”. 

As I said, that was my last day as an INCO.  Back in the PROP section the next morning. 

Moral of the story:  Treat each command as if it were your last.  It could be.


Presidential Encounters

Because it is on my mind today, I have been thinking about encounters with the President of the United States — in NASA’s Mission Control, of course.

Mission Control has seen its share of VIPs.  There is a story about British Royalty visiting the MCC that I may never tell you about. 

But my kids would.  Please don’t ask them.

Movie stars, politicians, Nobel prize winners, celebrities of all kinds have visited the MCC.  One of the “other duties as assigned” to new Flight Directors is to give tours to VIP groups in the MCC.  I have probably done a hundred of those in my time.  Now we have a new crop of Flight Directors who get that honor, thankfully.  Most of these are pretty low key and you get to meet some neat people.  There was a big contest to see who could give Vanna White the tour, for example.

But when the sitting President of the United States comes, it is a wholly different atmosphere.  I’ve been in MCC for at least two of those visits, maybe three. 

The first thing that happens is you cannot get to the coffee pot. 

This is serious.  The MCC runs on caffeine and the curtailing of travel to and from the coffee pot probably puts all mission decision making in jeopardy.  The fact that all the flight controllers are cleared by the government to operate multi-billion dollar national assets does not make one whit of difference to the Secret Service. 

You can tell its about to happen when mysterious men in tailored suits wearing sunglasses (inside the building) and who appear to have hearing aids in their ears appear at each of the doors.  Now, the typical flight controller is color coordination challenged (not as bad as the guys at JPL, however).  Frequently the look is pure J. C. Penny clearance rack.  So the guys in their nicely tailored matching suit and tie stand out.  Even when they are trying to look inconspicuous. 

Generally without prior warning, these strange, suited men stop the foot traffic in the halls around the MCC.  No coffee.  Probably a good thing since no bathroom breaks either. 

Then come the dogs. 

Now, there are stories from the Apollo days of a short order kitchen on the MCC mezzanine that flight controllers could run to get a burger or some other life threatening meal quickly cooked to order.  That facility, if it ever really did exist, is long gone.  The NASA cafeteria in an adjoining building is good for breakfast and lunch only and is locked up by 2:00 PM.  It is rarely open on weekends or holidays.  Cost cutting measures and all that.  Besides, it is more than a couple minute jaunt from the MCC to the cafeteria and leaving your post (unless during LOS) is not allowed.  Kranz or Craft would have people shot if they not on duty when AOS arrived; that mentality is still present in the MCC.

One of my real surprises at the KSC Firing Room is NO FOOD OR DRINK ALLOWED.  But there folks have backups on console and can pretty much leave when they need to.  MCC in Houston is just the opposite — no backups, no leaving, but you can bring in food and drink.  It is indicative that one part of NASA would do it differently from another part; NASA is that kind of agency.  I guess I need to observe JPL more closely to figure out what they do . . .

(There is a funny story of an Apollo astronaut who spilled a whole cup of coffee into the electronics driving an MCC console.  But that will have to wait for another day).

I was pretty much always a brown bag sort of guy.  Ham & cheese or peanut butter & jelly plus fruit if my wife pestered me.  There were vending machines in the hallway for candy bars and somebody was always bringing food.  Eating is a way of dealing with the tension in mission control.  Smoking is no longer allowed so the average weight of a flight controller increases dramatically during a mission. 

But back to the dogs.  The security people bring in their dogs to sweep the MCC before the President arrives.  These dogs do not look friendly.  Their handlers display a striking lack of sense of humor.  The flight controllers are instructed to sit still and not get up.  And the dog gets to come right by you and sniff you . . . and your lunch.  I though I was going to loose my baloney sandwich to an interested German Shepard one day.

After all that, the President comes in.  Usually only to the Flight Director/Capcom console area.  They always give him one of the handheld phones and let him exchange pleasantries with the crew.  Hopefully the Commander has the intelligence not to make any political comments, but there was at least one instance where an intended joke backfired . . . .

Then, quicker than they arrived, the President and all the security guys are gone.  Time to go get some coffee . . .and visit the bathroom . . . and maybe get some chips from the machine to go with my PBJ.




This Week's Flight Director Story

This has been a busy week so I am behind in making a post.  I’m also distracted with watching tropical weather; living on the coast is nice until hurricane season.  Oh well, that’s life.

One of the more serious assignments that can come to a Flight Director is to be the Lead for a flight.  This means that you are responsible for the overall planning and therefore the success or failure of a particular flight.  I drew this assignment for STS-96 which was the first logistics mission to the newly orbited International Space Station. 

In those days, the ISS consisted of the US build node “Unity” and the Russian built FGB “Zarya”.  There was no crew onboard because the crew quarters — the Russian built “Zvezda” Service Module — had not been launched.  The Functional Energy Block (FGB in Cyrillic) controlled the attitude, maintained the thermal control, generated the power, and generally did almost every function for the uninhabited station while the Unity Node provided a place for the shuttle to dock, someday.

Now, I’m general an Ascent/Entry Flight Director, and I had never dealt with the ISS program or any of the international partners, so this was all new to me.  A “broadening” experience.  Hmm.  I’d always considered the stuff in the payload bay to be useful mainly to control the center of gravity of the orbiter.  Now I had to know what it did and how to use it.

And there was a lot of stuff. In a pressurized module in the payload bay we carried a huge amount of equipment to install inside the new ISS, there was already maintenance to do, and we were bringing food, clothes, medical supplies and other logistics necessary for the first expedition crew who would come in another year or so.  I got acquainted with a whole new cast of folks who work the orbit shifts in the MCC that I never had to deal with before.  I’ll never forget my first meeting with my “transfer specialist.”  I asked her how I should get training on her job.  She asked me if I’d ever moved — that was experience enough.  And while orbital mechanics and rocket science are important, I came to find out that carrying boxes and containers from the “van” (shuttle) to the “house” (ISS) was the most critical and part of the job!

I also got to meet with a lot of Russians and got two trips to Moscow.  Funny, we always met in Moscow in the winter and Houston in the summer.  Seems like we would be smart enough to do it the other way.  Just like the Americans at NASA, I found out that the Russians were made up of a lot of groups of folks who generally worked together but sometimes did not.  Just like at NASA.  We would work closely with the team in the Russian control center (the “TsUP”) who built and operated the FGB.  These guys were all from the Khrunichev “company” (formerly design bureau).  Later on, the Energia “company” would take over.  I found out how closely Energia and Khrunichev worked together.  Almost as well as JSC and MSFC anyway.

The senior Khrunichev Flight Director, Yuri K had lived through WWII, all the bad old days, and was a smart, steady, and well respected senior leader.  His deputy, Yuri B. was about my age and smart as a whip.  Both of them treated me with all the genuine respect I could have expected from any of my American colleagues.  So we started planning.  What did they need to get done, and what did we need to get done and then what did we all need to get done together.  My Russian language skills are non-existent and their English was minimal but we had a really great technical translation team.  I learned to appreciate Russian tea (but not vodka) and they came to like Texas barbeque.  We got a lot of planning done. 

All the basic rules in place, we started training together.  How the simulation team lashed up the shuttle simulator in Houston with the FGB simulator in Russia is still a mystery but it all worked.  The very first simulation was going very well until the actual docking.

The mechanism that joins the shuttle to the station is built by the Russians.  It is extremely robust and reliable.  In actual flight we have never had any major problems but there are certain . . . idiosyncrasies.  Most of which we did not appreciate in the early days.  One of the “design features” are three little capture latches.  These are little spring loaded fingers that remind me a lot of the mechanism that holds my screen door shut.  Three little latches that connect the hundred ton shuttle to the growing station until the much stronger hooks are driven electrically to make a solid union.

So the first simulation proceeded fine up until the point where we were to dock.  Just before docking the Russians had to command the FGB to free drift — turn off its attitude control system.  If they didn’t do that, the shuttle and FGB automatic control systems would fight and burn up a lot of attitude control gas very quickly.  So the Khrunichev team sent the free drift command, the shuttle inched in for a docking and instead of the report from the MMACS officer of “capture”, I heard these words:  “bounce off, flight.”  What did that mean?  It meant that the little capture latches failed and we had met, touched, and bounced away.  Now on the shuttle side that is not a big deal — we still had attitude control, the crew backed away from the station and waited.  On the ISS side, they were out of control and the stack went into a tumble.  Turning back on the FGB attitude control system required many commands and without attitude control the antennas were not pointing properly.  Later we figured out that it would take about a half hour to get control back if we could maintain a command link . . . which we didn’t in that simulation.

Disaster.  The station without attitude control, tumbling, with intermittent communications, and degrading power.

Sim over. 

The debrief was not a happy one.

I set off with my team to develop a set of contingency plans to cover the “bounce off” scenarios.  Turns out that there were several variations on that theme, with different options to recover depending on which scenario that had been encountered.  After about three days work, I pulled together an outline procedure of about twelve pages covering every possible option and scenario.  My team agreed that this was what we needed.  We sent the document to the translators for our Russian colleagues to give us their option.

A day later, I got Yuri B’s take:  “This is a little long, can we condense it?”  Feeling a great deal of the pride of authorship, I replied: “I don’t see how you can but go ahead if you want to.”  No way was that pesky Russian deputy Flight Director going to condense my work!

The next day the translation team gave me Yuri’s input.  He put the whole thing on a 3×5 card.  Even in Cyrillic — which generally takes more space than English — it all fit on a 3×5 card. 

And it was right.  And complete.  And really elegant.  Yuri captured the essence of what I had taken twelve long single space pages to write down and put it on one 3×5 card.

Did I ever learn a lesson that day. 

The flight came, we docked without incident; all the bags and boxes got across the hatch and stowed properly; all the maintenance was done, all the logistics completed, and the flight was a huge success.  We never needed the “bounce off” procedures.  But we were ready if we needed them — all there on a 3×5 card; English on one side, Russian on the other.

So being a lead flight director was a very broadening experience.  I learned that there are a lot of folks on the other side of the ocean that are as passionate about space flight as I am.  I learned that there are at least some folks on the other side of the ocean that are smarter about space flight operations than I am.  I learned that despite language and cultural differences, we can work together successfully.  Yes, that was a very broadening experience. 

And we are still learning.