Skyrocketing career

Mary Lawrence ‘01 in the mission control center at NASA in Houston.

Mary Lawrence ‘01 in the mission control center at NASA in Houston.

Credit: Contributed photo

Alumna chosen as flight director for international space station operations at NASA

Every day that Mary (Good) Lawrence ’01 drives to work, she steers her car past rockets towering hundreds of feet in the air and is reminded of the magnitude of what she and her colleagues at NASA in Houston are trying to accomplish.

Space travel, while practically routine for NASA today, is still a proposition fraught with danger and risk.

“Protecting people and vehicles in space is a daunting job,” said Lawrence, a Mechanical Engineering graduate who was recently selected to be a flight director for the International Space Station.

Following completion of her training this summer, Lawrence will be one of twenty-seven active flight directors at NASA. It’s a prestigious and challenging position that Lawrence said plays to her personal strengths.

“I’ve always enjoyed both engineering and leading teams,” she said. “In this position, I get to work on technical operations and also oversee a group of extraordinary individuals. It’s the best job at NASA, in my opinion.”

We recently talked with Lawrence, an Erie county native, about her skyrocketing career and life in Houston.

What does a flight director do?
We lead teams of flight controllers, research and engineering experts, and support personnel in protecting and supporting the crew and equipment in space. The majority of the control of the space station actually happens from the ground. This is so the astronauts can focus on the real mission of the space station, which is research and science.

So, you have a lot to keep tabs on?
Yes. Flight directors have to watch the overall picture and also keep track of a lot of moving parts. It all comes together at the flight director console. We’re the last line of defense in any mission we’re trying to achieve.

How many engineers will you oversee as flight director?
There are five to ten flight controllers in the room with us in Houston, but we work with control centers in Russia, Japan, and other countries. We’re all flying the space station together, though Houston is the lead along with Russia. There are hundreds of engineering support staff.

What fascinates you about your job?
The technology and what we’ve been able to achieve on a relatively small budget. There are a lot of smart and resourceful people at NASA who can do impressive things with very little money. It’s mind blowing.

What frightens you about your job, if anything?
To be a good flight director, you need to maintain a level of healthy fear. You have to focus and do your best every single day because you are responsible for keeping the astronauts safe.

What would people be surprised to know about NASA?
We’re not all rocket scientists and geniuses. It’s a lot of ordinary people working together to do extraordinary things.