Review: Shuttle, Houston

Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control
by Paul Dye
Hachette Books, 2020
Hardcover, 320 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-316-45457-5

The recent SpaceX commercial crew mission offered a look at the future of mission control, or at least the concept of mission control. There was the traditional NASA Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, overseeing the operations of the International Space Station. There was also, though, SpaceX’s own mission control center at its Hawthorne, California, headquarters, which handled the Crew Dragon itself. During their trip to the station in May, and back home in August, the NASA astronauts on the spacecraft communicated directly with the SpaceX mission control rather than with JSC.

That resulted in some differences, superficial and more significant. SpaceX’s mission control, long used for cargo Dragon missions, has glass walls so that employees could watch, and cheer. The Crew Dragon astronauts spoke not with a fellow astronaut servicing as Capcom but instead a SpaceX “crew operations responsible engineer,” or CORE. Yet there were many more similarities, including the rigor involved with handling operations of a crewed spacecraft, one recounted by longtime NASA flight director Paul Dye in Shuttle, Houston.

Dye came to JSC near the beginning of shuttle missions as a co-op student, unsure if he wanted to pursue a career in the space program or in aviation. His experience led him to go with space, and he soon joined JSC on a full-time basis, ascending through the flight controller ranks before selected as a flight director in 1993, working on that role through the final shuttle mission in 2011.

His book is partially a story of that career, one filled with anecdotes from his time both in Mission Control and other assignments, such as extensive time in Russia during the 1990s supporting the Shuttle-Mir program and learning to work with Russian counterparts. (A more difficult assignment, he suggests, was being sent to Washington in the early 1990s to support space station planning: “I’m sorry, there really isn’t any kind of work that I enjoy that is actually done there,” he said of his brief time inside the Beltway.)

He also uses the book to examine what it takes to be successful in the high-stakes world of human spaceflight, based on his decades of experience in JSC’s Mission Control. One chapter looks at a relatively minor incident on a shuttle mission—an antenna that initially failed to properly retract at the end of a radar mapping mission two decades ago—as a way of examining how missions are planned and problems addressed. Another chapter recounts activities in Mission Control as a major problem unfolds on a shuttle mission, only to find it’s just one of many simulations that controllers go through as part of training.

There is, throughout the book, a reverence for Mission Control that for Dye dates back to the first time he stepped into the control center while still a co-op student: “Many have compared it to stepping into a cathedral, and that feeling was palpable; this was a place where good things could—and did—happen.” But, later in the book, he notes that Mission Control “was not just awe-inspiring, it was a fun place to be,” reserving a chapter for some of the more humorous anecdotes from his time there.

In the book’s final chapters, Dye distills some of the wisdom from his time in Mission Control, with advice like “the first answer is always wrong” and “never make the right decision too soon,” as well as broader insights about leadership. He regrets the retirement of the shuttle primarily because it leaves us without the ability to return large payloads from space. But, he says he supports the new commercial crew vehicles even if they lack that capability to return large payloads: “Commercialization is a good thing, and if that is where the leaders go with their visions, then we will follow—and ride their ships off the planet.”

Government or commercial, capsule or shuttle, crewed spaceflight require the support of a mission control to ensure a safe mission. Wherever that mission control may be located and however it looks, it requires the same rigor and attention to detail described in Dye’s book to ensure success.