Tuesday, September 25, 2018

NASA Appoints Its First Female Chief Flight Director

NASA took another giant step for equality this week when it named Holly Ridings as its first female chief flight director! Ridings, who is originally from Amarillo, Texas, will lead the flight directors that oversee human spaceflight missions from Mission Control in Houston's Johnson Space Center.  "Holly has proven herself a leader among a group of highly talented flight directors,” says Director of
Flight Operations Brian Kelly. "I know she will excel in this unique and critical leadership position providing direction for the safety and success of human spaceflight missions. She will lead the team during exciting times as they adapt to support future missions with commercial partners and beyond low-Earth orbit."

Ridings earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University in 1996 and joined NASA in 1998. Initially serving as a flight controller in the thermal operations group, she was selected as a flight director in 2005. Ridings described what a flight director job entails in an interview two years ago: "For the team on the ground that we call the flight control team, the person responsible and in charge of that team is the flight director. You have a person in charge of the power system, the communications system, the robotic system, and so that group of people makes up the flight control team, and the flight director is responsible for leading them. It’s a very big job!"

During her time as flight director, Ridings supervised several high-profile missions, including ISS Expedition 16 in 2007; Space Shuttle mission STS-127 in 2009; and the first SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft mission to the space station in 2012. Even with such vast experience, everything doesn't always go according to plan. "If you do it long enough," Ridings says, "I mean thousands and thousands of hours in mission control, you end up seeing problems." That's when having a strong team matters most according to Ridings: "[W]hen there’s a crisis people really understand that, and everybody focuses, so actually it sounds really difficult but in some ways it is easier because you have that focus where you are trying to solve problems."

Now, as chief flight director, Ridings will manage the 32 flight directors and flight directors in training that supervise human spaceflight missions, including missions to the International Space Station (ISS). She's also looking ahead to further work with the planned Orion exploration program, which will pave the way for a crewed Mars mission in the decades to come, and she'll be involved in partnerships between NASA and private commercial space missions.

For Ridings, the diversity of the projects is one of the things she loves most about working at NASA. "As we get further along in exploration we’ll all have opportunities to train and learn new programs and vehicles," she says. "We’ll have our own exploration and all the commercial stuff, so we’ll move around different programs, which is great. You never get bored, every day is different, and it’s always interesting."

In the NASA video below, you can learn more about mission control and the role of flight directors from Flight Director Mary Lawrence.