Scheduling for Success, Preparing for Disaster: NASA Flight Controller Marianne Dyson

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In between landing on the moon in July of 1969 and launching the first space shuttle into orbit in April of 1981, NASA learned a few things about contingency planning. Margaret Hamilton’s software had saved Apollo 11’s moon landing by crafting specialized bits of code to compensate for all the different and unusual demands that might be placed on the mission’s computer systems. One year later, the explosion of one of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks created a crisis that it took every ounce of mission control’s ingenuity and the astronauts’ stamina and training to overcome. What was clearly needed was a set of disaster plans that did for the mission in general what Hamilton’s code had done for Apollo’s computers. 

In order not to be caught unprepared again, NASA threw itself into creating contingency plans for every conceivable failure that could strike its newest brainchild, an entire fleet of reusable shuttles. That dedication to anticipating and planning for the worst brought forth a new breed of scientific professional who had to combine in one person the talents of an engineer, psychologist, and efficiency expert, somebody with imagination enough to see what might go wrong, rigor enough to develop procedures to deal with those failures, and insight enough to realize how those procedures might need to be amended to account for crew behavior. And while Sally Ride was training to become an astronaut in a swirl of media attention, a red-headed Ohio woman in her twenties with just that combination of talents quietly joined NASA to make a bit of history of her own.

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Marianne J. Dyson is proof that there is more than one path to a career in space. A self-professed science fiction nerd as a child, she was particularly inspired by Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones, the tale of an orphan who becomes a space navigator, and by the example of Uhuru on Star Trek. She grew up to the sights of NASA’s Golden Age, the Mercury and Apollo programs, and the confident predictions that, by the 21st century, mankind would inhabit the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond. She wanted to study astronomy with an eye towards working at NASA but the divorce of her parents, friction with her new stepmother, and the financial difficulties of her mother and stepfather made college a narrow proposition. By virtue of odd jobs, ramen noodles, and living in a run-down, vermin infested apartment she just managed tuition, and studied physics at the University of North Carolina.

She transferred to Rice University for graduate work, but found that her mathematical background always lagged a few steps behind what was necessary for her coursework. Fourier Analysis, for example, which is today a standard part of undergraduate differential equations courses, was something she somehow managed to graduate without having studied. This led to a series of embarrassing incidents in class and in discussions with teachers when she was told, quite simply, that her level of math was insufficient to take the courses she needed to get her advanced degree. She compensated by taking more hands-on, less theoretical, courses, and learned computer programming, while trying to figure out whether to press on in academia or try for the private sector.

It wasn’t an easy decision. At the time, she had dreams of being an astronaut, but to do that she needed either military experience or a PhD. To leave graduate school was, then, to possibly give up all hope of becoming an astronaut, while staying presented the prospect of more grinding years of always being two steps behind all of her fellow students mathematically. “I didn’t want to spend my life in a library looking up numbers or deriving equations,” she explains in her memoirs. “Also, I was tired of being poor, living off Ramen noodles and Kraft macaroni and cheese.”

She left school and took a job at Computer Sciences Corporation, putting to use the programming knowledge she’d picked up in her physics studies while waiting to hear back from NASA about any low-level openings. She didn’t have to wait long – after a week of work, NASA contacted her and on January 8, 1979, she began a career that packed a lifetime of exhilaration and exhaustion into a frantic half decade. 

In five years, she had risen from a timeline programmer to one of NASA’s first women Flight Activities Officers. She’d stood in Mission Control and made decisions that affected the success of the world’s most technically complicated scientific endeavor. And now, at just age thirty, that part of her life was suddenly over.

At the time, NASA was gearing up its plans for the new space shuttle fleet, which it hoped would be able to launch one flight a month, earning enough in private satellite launch contracts to make up for the decrease in governmental funding it had known since the end of Apollo. To maintain such a punishing mission rate required a new crop of mission specialists to prioritize shuttle tasks and compile master timelines that could adapt to the unavoidable malfunctions that came with launching the most complicated object ever fashioned by human hands into space and bringing it back again twelve times a year.

Dyson was originally brought on to aid in the development of those timelines and to program the software that was responsible for generating them, but her job profile grew dizzyingly almost from the start. She was put in charge of determining emergency procedures for the failure of crucial cooling and positional components, which meant taking ideas from engineers and astronauts, creating programs to test their efficacy, and spending long hours in simulators to test out different solutions until she had an executable and effective set of protocols for each of the failure cases assigned her. Because of her, and the other scientists and engineers working on malfunction protocols, the astronauts who went up in the shuttle would be well provided with a set of procedures for the failure of just about any component onboard.

Meanwhile, Dyson was training for a position as Flight Activities Officer, or FAO. These were the people responsible, during the flight, for maintaining and adjusting the timeline as various emergencies arose. It was a high stress job that required a cool head, level judgment, a willingness to listen to your support staff, and the ability to combine their advice with your own experience to make on the moment decisions about how to direct the astronauts and get the mission goals done in the face of cold, mischievous reality.      

Three women were training as mission FAOs at the time, Carolynn Conley, Cheevon “Mi-Mi” Lau, and Dyson. Conley was the first up, working as FAO on the ascent leg of the space shuttle’s third flight (STS-3). Dyson worked as Timeline support on that mission, and both endured grueling schedules that involved 13 hour shifts followed by 10 hour rests followed by more 13 hour shifts. Every malfunction required lightning recalculation of orbits and landing sites, and adjustment of the main timeline. Crew sickness, malfunctioning equipment, unnoticed errors in the schedule, all combined to make the FAO position a hectic but rewarding ride. 

Dyson was FAO for the Entry team on STS-4 (June 27 – July 4, 1982), which launched the first secret Department of Defense payload, and Lau would be FAO Entry for STS-6, Challenger‘s first flight. They handled everything that space, machinery, and man could throw at them and were given generally favorable evaluations by their superiors, yet they noticed that, in contravention of the policies for FAO training that NASA had laid out, men were being given FAO positions who didn’t meet the criteria, while they were being seemingly sidelined, given fewer opportunities than their training had earned. 

They brought the problem up with management, and received the reply that, to have enough trained FAOs ready for the punishing monthly launch schedule NASA was aiming for, they needed to get more people in the FAO chair sooner, instead of cycling through the same three people over and over again. It was a plausible enough answer in that era when NASA was scrambling to staff their ambitious new program, but it still had a distinct whiff of gender discrimination, and Dyson for one felt that having brought the complaint in the first place worked against her the rest of her career.

Even with the addition of the new officers, it would not be long until Dyson would have her chance to act as lead FAO, on the upcoming STS-11 and STS-14 missions.  STS-11 would eventually launch in 1984, but without Dyson.  She had long been hoping to have a child and, in June 1983, she gave birth to a boy. Previously, Cheevon Lau had had a baby and returned to work promptly in six weeks. Dyson wanted more time with her newborn, and requested paid leave until October, and received it. 

And that’s when things started going a bit sideways. She decided that four months wasn’t enough time, and requested an extension of her leave to November. That was also granted. Then, after discussing the matter further with her friends and family, and running through the financial ramifications with her husband, she asked for another extension until January 1984. She had already handed over her lead position on STS-11, but expected to still be on for STS-14. Management, however, said they couldn’t do without their lead FAO until January on a project that was going into dry runs already in April. If she wanted to keep that project, she’d have to come back by December. She thought of her job, thought of her child, and decided that the extra time with him was worth missing out on being FAO of STS-14. She declined the January return date, and her place was filled by the next in line.

She still, however, had her regular job at NASA, which they legally had to hold for her until June. She declared that she was going to come back in April, but when that date rolled around babysitting issues arose and she didn’t actually return until May. She had work to do, particularly on the upcoming Spacelab 3 project, but it wasn’t the dense and meaningful caseload she had grown used to before her son’s birth, added to which was a marked coolness from some of the new women at NASA. 

It was an unfortunate state of affairs all around. If only NASA had had a set policy for maternity leave in place so that everybody knew what could and couldn’t be expected. If only Dyson requested the full amount of her desired leave at once so that management could plan accordingly, instead of inching from October to November to January to April to May. Dyson was forced to make up the rules as she went, feeling out the boundaries between NASA’s manic work schedule and the needs of being a mother. It was pioneer work, necessarily unsure and stumbling, and if in the long term it benefited NASA by making them realize that not every mother could or wanted to be back in six weeks, in the short term it frustrated a chronically overworked management and created resentment among the women workers who felt that their chances for being taken seriously were being negatively impacted by Dyson’s inability to stick to a return date. 

Once back at work Dyson soon realized that, to do right by her child, she needed to work part time. She put in a request in October to shift to a 24 hour work week, and was told that her designation required full time status. So, she decided to leave NASA and seek out work in private industry. In five years, she had risen from a timeline programmer to one of NASA’s first women Flight Activities Officers. She’d stood in Mission Control and made decisions that affected the success of the world’s most technically complicated scientific endeavor. And now, at just age thirty, that part of her life was suddenly over.

She found part-time work as a consultant at a firm that was thoroughly accommodating when her second child came, but that work was a far cry from her time at the beating heart of NASA, capped by one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever had to read for this series. Germany had wanted to start up a Spacelab program of their own, designated D-1, and part of Dyson’s job was to use her expertise on Spacelab 3 to help them out. When their project finally launched aboard the Challenger on flight STS-61A (or what sane people call STS-30), Dyson returned to NASA, but not to the Mission Control that had been her home for that half decade. Instead, she sat in the Customer Center with her German clients, her only job being to translate NASA’s ceaseless strings of acronyms for the Germans so that they could decide what to do with it. 

In her memoirs, Dyson attempts to put a happy face on the experience, but there is no escaping the basic sadness of a woman who had once stood proudly on the floor of Mission Control, sitting in a customer service side room, translating acronyms. 

Two months later, Challenger flight STS-51L/25 exploded on national television, claiming the lives of Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and America’s teacher-in-space, Sharon McAuliffe. Marianne Dyson has spent the three decades since Challenger writing children’s stories and magazine articles trying to rekindle that need to return to space which was such a fundamental part of her childhood. One of her favorite projects is a permanent telescope station on the dark side of the moon to act as both early warning system for Earth collision events and top-notch observatory. I think we can all agree, that’s a pretty kick-ass idea.

FURTHER READING:  For information about the development of the Space Shuttle program, my faaaaaaavorite book is Dennis Jenkins’s Space Shuttle: The History of Developing the National Space Transportation System, The Beginning Through STS-75.  It is lavishly illustrated with diagrams of just about every component and iteration you could think of, with detailed accounts of every system and flight. Dyson’s memoirs, A Passion for Space: Adeventures of a Pioneering Female NASA Flight Controller (2016), are available through Praxis Publishing and give a real toggle by toggle feel of what running sims and working in Mission Control during the most hectic days of the shuttle era was all about. 

Dale DeBakcsy About Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the writer and artist of the Women In Science and Cartoon History of Humanism columns, and has, since 2007, co-written the webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy with Geoffrey Schaeffer. He is also a regular contributor to The Freethinker, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer. He studied intellectual history at Stanford and UC Berkeley before becoming a teacher of mathematics and drawer of historical frippery.