NASA’s first flight director’s advice for the first woman to hold his job

Ridings in 2008 as a flight controller on a space shuttle mission.
Ridings in 2008 as a flight controller on a space shuttle mission.
Image: NASA/Bill Stafford
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If an astronaut has to say, “Houston, we have a problem,” Holly Ridings will be on the other end of the call.

When humans are in space,  NASA’s chief flight director at mission control in Houston, Texas runs the show. And for the first time in NASA’s 60-year history, that chief flight director is a woman.

Ridings has worked in human spaceflight operations at NASA since 1998. Now, she will be responsible for the hundreds of flight controllers who monitor the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) each day, and the thousands who come into play during launches or spacewalks. Next year, her team will supervise the first astronauts to launch from US soil since 2011, flying for the first time in commercial vehicles operated by SpaceX and Boeing. They will also work on NASA’s exploration missions around the moon in the Orion spacecraft, planned for 2022, which will be the first human US deep-space flights since 1972.

Quartz spoke to Ridings about her career and aspirations as the orchestrator of human activity in orbit.

Quartz: What makes a good flight director?

Ridings: Engineers, some of them don’t like to talk to people. You can already tell I don’t mind people. I’m kind of the mixture of engineering and the human aspect of it, and that’s really what operations is. You have to have incredible technical competency, but it’s a lot about building relationships and solving problems with the team.

The very first flight director, Chris Kraft, is 94, I think, [and] still lives in the Clearlake area. I had lunch with him…just to ask advice. You can trace the 98 flight directors all the way back to number one. He’ll tell you stories about Apollo 8 and going around the moon. It puts into perspective the commercial-crew program; there’re a lot of similarities to what Boeing and SpaceX are doing.

What advice did he give you?

“There’s more than one way to get to Spring, Texas [a town outside of Houston].” The question I had asked was about leading people. The advice really meant, “you have amazing people, let them run, let them make decisions, let them be invested.” There’s more than one way to get where you’re going, it doesn’t always have to be your way. When you’re managing an elite team, you absolutely need their capability and their buy-in.

Did you have mentors at NASA?

When I went to college [at Texas A&M], my senior design teacher was Aaron Cohen, and before that he had been the director of the Johnson Space Center. He was amazing, he would ask us to design a lunar base, and he’d pick up the phone and call 22 people who worked on lunar stuff. You realize those people were out there, and that they would talk to you. It taught me to push through those hierarchical barriers….I worked at [NASA’s Goddard Space Center] for a little while with Gerald Soffen, a project scientist for the Viking landers in the late 1970s. My flight director name is actually “Viking Flight” in honor of him.

Do you have a favorite mission you’ve worked on as a flight director?

I had the privilege of being the NASA lead flight director for the very first [SpaceX] Dragon that went to the International Space Station in 2012. When I started [working] with SpaceX it was three years before they flew that mission, really getting to build those relationships and the trust all through this very, very technical, very complicated space mission, and see the world through their eyes…and what they are trying to accomplish. It was the very first time [NASA] had ever flown a commercial vehicle. If you look at it from the perspective of the industry, and we don’t get that mission done, are we where we are today?

What kind of stamp do you want to put on your tenure as chief flight director?

NASA is the only [US] team that has ever put humans in space. We own the monopoly. Shortly, in the next year, we’ll have our commercial providers; they will execute the launches of humans themselves. [My goal] is to have NASA leadership and maintain our relevance and be able to work in a positive way in an industry that is changing very, very rapidly, and be thought of still as the go-to folks in terms of our expertise. We do that with ISS today, and  if I’m going to put a stamp on it, it’s really uniting all the different pieces of the human spaceflight ecosystem and figuring out how we’re all going to work together.

What does being the first woman flight director mean for you?

I was amazingly lucky—I talked about my mentors [previously in the interview], my folks, my teachers, I never had any limitations put on me personally. I know that it is important to have role models, just like I did, that don’t put any limitations on you. And then it works out sort of like you hope it will. Being the first of anything is an honor; for NASA to entrust me with this opportunity, at this point in time in human spaceflight, is just a privilege.

When did you know you wanted to be involved in space?

I’ve loved space since I was young, I’m one of the people we call the “Challenger generation.” I was in sixth grade when the Challenger [disaster] happened, we watched it live. It’s interesting, some people’s reaction to that is, “yeah, I don’t want anything to do with that.” I, on the other hand, was like, “let’s figure out how to try and make that better.” There’s no problem that I don’t somehow think I can make better.

This interview has been edited and condensed.