NASA flight instructor reflects on final launch
July 8th, 2011
10:25 AM ET

NASA flight instructor reflects on final launch

Steve Gauvain is an instructor and flight controller for NASA's space shuttle. He's down in Florida for the final launch of Atlantis, whose crew he helped to train for rendezvous. He has worked for NASA for 14 years, and has worked in Mission Control for the last year and a half.

What got you into space?

My dad was actually a reporter for ABC local news in Houston, and he always loved anything that flew.  He got himself assigned as the beat reporter for NASA, and so he would in the course of doing the stories he would actually take me and my brothers with him as he would cover NASA stuff.   I actually have a picture of myself in the simulator...when I was 8 or 9 years old. I don't even remember being in there, but apparently it made an impression.

When I graduated [college] ...I was looking and trying to find a job, interviewing lots of places. There were mechanical engineering jobs, boring as all get out. And the company I work for, United Space Alliance, was having a job fair, and they're like hey, come work on the space shuttles! I was like hey, space, that sounds cool.

That was the only job offer I got, and I've been doing it ever since, and I've loved every minute of it.

If you asked me to do a mechanical engineering degree now I wouldn't do so well! But you want to know something about the shuttle, I can tell you all about it.

What do you do in Mission Control?

I am a data processing systems officer. I sit in the back room. The way Mission Control is set up is you have a Flight Director that's kind of in charge and they have a group of people in the front room. Each person is responsible for a system. My particular area of expertise is the data processing system, which is the computers. So in the front room there'll be an officer that's responsible for that system, and their job is to mainly do the integration between the computer system and all the other systems. So if the electric busses are having trouble, they may be talking to the data processing person to see what the effects are on the computers...so I'm the technical expert for the data processing systems.

I basically need to know everything about it, so I know what the crew is supposed to do, what they're not supposed to do, and what to do if something breaks.

What's your favorite memory?

You know, it's a tough question. It's tough to pinpoint an exact memory, because I've been able to do some amazing things. But the thing that kind of weaves all of it together is being able to work with the extraordinary people I've had an opportunity to work with.

Every single person I meet, without fail, is 150% dedicated to their job, and in our line of work, people's lives are at stake. We have billions of dollars of national assets at stake and you have to take that very seriously. And we do, but at the same time, we all like to have fun, and we have just some amazing fun in sharing in that experience.

That's the part I think that hurts most about shuttle ending is there's a lot of people who are being laid off, and it feels like you're losing a part of your family, not just losing a work piece. But you're losing a part of your family and you're losing a national asset, which, given a direction and resources to go do it, we can still do amazing things. And I think that's the part that's sort of sad in terms of how this thing is winding up.

What do you think is next?

What I hope is that our President and our leadership really gets very clear about what they want us to do. I think if they can get real clear about what they want us to do, and let us go do it, we can go do it. And whether that's talking a mission to an asteroid, or going back to the moon, or building a mission to mars, there's nothing that we can't do.

From a personal standpoint I don't really care where we go, but what I really care about is that we continue exploring, because if we stop exploring...I think robotic missions are essential. But a robot can't tell you what something tastes like. It can't tell you what something smells like. It can't tell you what something feels like. You really need humans as a part of that, to be able to share that gift with everybody. It's not just for us. It belongs to everybody: every taxpayer that's ever paid their taxes. This space program is theirs, too. And it's our job to share that with them and make them a part of it. And that's what I like to do.

What's next for you?

I don't really know. I'm scheduled to be laid off in August. There's a chance that I may be retained to continue working on the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, which is kind of the next-generation spacecraft. But right now it's kind of up to the upper levels, budgets and management that's out of my hands. So I'm going to wait patiently and see what comes out of that, and either I'll continue on and work on that, or I'm going to find something else and put my heart and soul into that and do the best I can with that too.

Would you do it over again?

Absolutely. I have loved every minute of my job. The really neat thing about where I work is just like any job, you can get caught up in the mundane details and it can become repetitive and it can become frustrating.

But I get to do tours for people, and that's where I really come back, step back and see wow, my job's really cool. I can get up in the morning and say, I can't believe they pay me to do this. It's just fantastic stuff. When people come in and they're seeing it for the first time, I can share in that enthusiasm and excitement. And like I said, anybody that's paid taxes, it's their space program, so it's my job to kind of show them what they're getting for their money.

I've met all kinds of really cool people giving tours, people I've never expected to meet and it's not just my personal friends and family. I get all kinds of fun questions. People take all kinds of fun memories. I work at a place where people go to visit on vacation. That's kind of cool.

One thing you could say that doesn't get said often enough?

The thing that I think doesn't get out, is how incredibly cool and fun this job can be. You know, space flight is very serious business, and people need to take it seriously. It's so inspiring and so much fun that I think we need to do a better job of educating people [about] what they're getting out of it. It's not stuffy.

It's just like your job. Sure, it's a little bit different, we've got astronauts and space equipment. Anybody goes to work and has a laugh with their coworkers, or shares a funny story. All that stuff happens where we work too. It feels like it's hard to really include everybody and make them feel like they own that and they're a part of that. It's...the people speak, it's their space program.

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Ray

    Good job, Steve. It's a pleasure working with you.

    July 8, 2011 at 7:42 pm |

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