Matt Abbott, Lead Flight Director
When Matt Abbott was 6 years old, he watched on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. At that moment, Abbott's course in life was set.
Like innumerable other children around the world, Abbott thought it would be fun to be an astronaut. After all, who wouldn't want to follow in those first footprints in the dust of another world?
But, he recalls, something else about that historic event caught his interest.
"There was something captivating for me in that picture of Mission Control," he said. The world's eyes may have been on Aldrin and Armstrong, but Abbott was equally focused on the men on the edges of their seats in the control room, making the split-second "go/no go" decisions that would shape history.
Now, as NASA prepares for the STS-118 space shuttle mission, Abbott is the one making those decisions as lead shuttle flight director in Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
While he won't be aboard the shuttle, Abbott is one of the most important members of the STS-118 mission. Working with the astronauts and his Mission Control team, Abbott will have ultimate responsibility for decisions made before and during the flight.
Abbott explained that being a flight director is almost like having two different jobs.
Part of the time, he works at an office job. He goes to meetings. He answers e-mails. He does paperwork. Only the subject of those meetings, e-mails, and paperwork differentiates his office job from thousands of others -- planning upcoming shuttle missions. The Space Shuttle Program Office decides what must happen on a particular shuttle flight. The flight director then leads the team that figures out how to accomplish those objectives, a process Abbott compares to putting together a puzzle.
Other times, his job is completely different. "The console part is the part we enjoy so much," he said. That's the time when Abbott and his team are actually working in the Mission Operations Control Room, overseeing the crew's activities.
The flight director is the hub of Mission Control, supported by a team of experts in the various components of a mission. Each expert monitors a specific element of the flight, and then makes recommendations to the flight director. A flight director on console is the mission's ultimate authority on the ground, with the final word on any decisions that must be made.
During a mission, multiple teams work shifts in the control room, providing 24-hour-a-day coverage. In addition to heading up one of those teams, the lead flight director is also responsible for overall mission planning.
By the time a Mission Control team sits down at their consoles during a shuttle flight, they've spent quite a bit of time there already. Prior to launch, the flight controllers participate in a series of mission simulations, making sure they not only know their roles for the flight, but are prepared for any number of problems that might occur. The simulations include integrated runs, in which the flight controllers practice together with the astronauts in a shuttle simulator.
"They throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at us," Abbott said.
Abbott, who played the drums while in high school, compared the difference between a simulation and an actual mission to the difference between band rehearsals and an actual performance. Even in rehearsal, one strives to do everything perfectly, but there's added excitement and pressure when the real thing comes around -- "Then it's show time."
Dealing with a variety of contingencies in simulation, he said, often makes the actual flight seem smooth in comparison.
"It feels like an easy simulation sometimes," he said.
After being captivated by the look of Mission Control during the Apollo 11 mission, Abbott said, "It was just one of many interests I had while I was growing up."
He became serious about pursuing the goal when he was in college in his native Buffalo, N.Y., and read an article by a co-op student working at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Deciding that he wanted to be a NASA co-op, Abbott transferred to Texas A&M to be closer to Johnson. He became a Johnson co-op, working in mission operations with flight dynamics. The assignment was random, but it was an area that Abbott greatly enjoyed. After graduation, he went to work for NASA as a Mission Control flight dynamics officer (or FDO, pronounced "Fido"). The FDO is responsible for monitoring the location and performance of the shuttle during flight, as well as planning maneuvers.
"It's as close as you can get to flying the vehicle without sitting in it," he said.
Abbott worked 40 shuttle missions in flight dynamics, including 27 launches and 11 landings.
"I loved that stuff; it's really great," he said.
However, in 1997, he decided he wanted to try something different before the job became routine. Moving back to northern latitudes, he got a job as a contractor supporting the Canadian Space Agency in Montreal, working with the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the International Space Station. After working in a position where he had focused on an entire spacecraft, he enjoyed the change to working only with one specific system.
"It was a lot of new things to me," he said. "I was very happy I took that opportunity."
In 2000, Abbott was beginning to think he might like to return to work at Johnson, and coincidentally some friends told him NASA was seeking a new class of flight directors.
"When I left in '97, I honestly didn't want to be a flight director," he said, explaining that, as a launch and landing FDO, he had enjoyed focusing on the shuttle's trajectory and how it flies, and letting other people take care of the vehicle's individual hardware systems. But being away for a couple of years uncovered another aspect that he really enjoyed: building a team.
When he heard about the new opening, Abbott decided he was interested. He became one of 10 new flight directors hired in 2000. He initially worked with the space station, because of his experience with the Canadarm2, and served as lead flight director for Expedition 9. With the STS-116 mission, he returned to working with the shuttle. He is now certified for both spacecraft. STS-118 will be his first mission as a shuttle lead flight director.
Abbott recently spoke at his former middle school and high school in Williamsville, N.Y. With him was astronaut Mike Fincke, who lived on the space station as a member of the Expedition 9 crew. Abbott said the students were fascinated that he had started out in their same hometown and gone on to hold an important job in the space program.
"I think that really sank in for a lot of them," he said. "We're just ordinary people, but we can do really extraordinary things."
"The best advice I can give young people is to not let anyone ever tell them they can't do something," he said. "Whatever's in your heart, whatever makes you go, you have to really let that develop. I was lucky enough to get bitten by this space bug, and that's what worked for me. Dream big, and don't let anyone tell you you can't."
NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's future by emphasizing three major education goals -- attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines; strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce; and engaging Americans in NASA's mission. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on supporting formal and informal educators to engage and retain students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.
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