Michael Sarafin's day at the office may begin with a cup of coffee and he might even check his e-mail. But it just as well may start with a review of experiments performed overnight on the International Space Station or some nagging problem on the space shuttle.
Sarafin, a 1994 Clarkson graduate, is part of an elite group of NASA; one of 30 flight directors who orchestrate the space shuttle and International Space Station missions. He works with payload customers and directs the group of engineers and controllers who design the missions, launch the rockets and supervise the landings.
“There’s definitely an anxiety or anticipation when you come up to a mission,” he says. “You’re sitting there at T-minus-nine, or in the holding period, and you’re getting ready to light the solid rocket boosters and send a crew of astronauts into space. There’s four-and-a-half million pounds of thrust. There is a very real sense of risk involved. But, you’ve trained and you’ve designed the mission. You’ve worked with these crew members and you’ve worked together as a team and you’ve done it so many times that the level of intensity, if you will, is managed as a result of that.”
Since 2005, mission control is Sarafin’s office, where he oversees the entire flight control team working to ensure safe and successful human spaceflight missions. He is a certified flight director for both the space shuttle and for the International Space Station.
“When I joined NASA in 1994, I had already served a co-op there and went to work in the space shuttle flight software area. As I had the opportunity to gain more experience and move around within NASA, I thought that the flight control area within mission control was something I was interested in.”
He pursued that interest and from October 1995 until August 2005 supported 31 space shuttle missions as a guidance, navigation and control officer.
“It is a young person’s game,” he says. “You have to work graveyard hours and at all hours of the day. I spent 10 years training and working in all different phases of flight. At one point, I calculated that with all the training flows I was involved with, I had spent over a year of my life – figuring seven days a week, 24 hours a day – in that one particular mission control room.”
That experience led him to apply for a flight director position. Because of retirements, NASA would appoint an unusually high number of flight directors in 2005 – nine.“There have been a grant total of just 73 flight directors in NASA’s 50-year span,” Sarafin says. “I feel privileged to be part of that.”
Even though NASA plans to retire the space shuttles in 2010, Sarafin looks forward to participating in the new Constellation program, the next generation of space vehicles. He won’t lack for things to do, since he is certified as a flight director for the space station, which will continue to operate, with spacecraft from Russia, Europe and Japan providing supplies and crew transport.
As to other young engineers, Sarafin says he sees a positive outlook for careers at NASA. “There are plenty of opportunities coming down the road as we enter this transition period,” he says.