Header Bar Graphic
Space Image and IconSpace HeaderKids Image
Spacer Space IconHomepage ButtonWhat is NASA Quest ButtonSpacerCalendar of Events ButtonWhat is an Event ButtonHow do I Participate ButtonSpacerBios and Journals ButtonSpacerPics, Flicks and Facts ButtonArchived Events ButtonQ and A ButtonNews ButtonSpacerEducators and Parents ButtonSpacer
Highlight Graphic
Sitemap ButtonSearch ButtonContact Button

Meet: Paul Hill

photo of Paul Hill

Flight Director
Johnson Space Center

"Do not say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I can not hear what you say to the contrary."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Who I am and What I Do

I am a Flight Director. I'm in charge of space shuttle and space station mission control and responsible for the safe conduct of space shuttle and space station missions.

In order to do that, NASA expects me to understand and make decisions about everything regarding the spacecrafts and flying in space. That includes things like power generation, computers, heat rejection, physiology, orbital mechanics, structural and fluid mechanics, not to mention math and physics. Just as important as technical expertise, to work in the Mission Control Center we must be able to review a large amount of data rapidly, sort out the most important facts and make decisions which may save the mission or the astronaut's lives, and then clearly translate those decisions into direction to the flight control team and the crew.

Starting approximately a year before flight, most of a Flight Director's work is done in the office and in conference rooms while we work with our flight control team planning the upcoming mission. In addition to planning the daily work during the space flight, we also spend considerable time analyzing the worst emergencies that could happen throughout the mission, and the response necessary to protect the crew and spacecraft and, if possible, still accomplish the mission. In the last three months before a flight, the flight control team practices what they've planned by conducting simulations from mission control. By the time we fly the real flight, we have planned and rehearsed it so well, it feels like something we have already done many times, which certainly makes it look easy.

Some of the important skills in this job are obvious, like a degree in engineering, math or science which demonstrates basic technical ability. As I mentioned above, however, it is just as important to be able to clearly communicate the essential information when there may be only minutes or seconds to evaluate the data and make a decision.

The second best part of this job is the rare luxury of having the authority to make final decisions on all aspects of the missions before flight and then to be left to exercise that same authority during the flight. The best part of the job is the confident feeling we have on the job because our training does such a good job preparing us for the worst, and we are surrounded by flight controllers who are humbling they are so good at this work.

Education Career Path

I earned my bachelor and master of science degrees in aerospace engineering, from Texas A&M University. While working on the first degree, I was on an Air Force scholarship and was in the Corps of Cadets. After finishing my masters degree, I went on active duty in the Air Force working in military satellite operations.

Four years later, I came to Houston to work at the Johnson Space Center as one of the first engineers developing space station assembly operations. That work progressed into broader responsibility in preparing for all aspects of space shuttle missions to the space station, and then led to my selection as a flight director.

Growing Up

We moved a fair amount while I was growing up. I migrated from Titusville, Florida; to Dallas and Irving, Texas; Marathon and Sugarloaf, Florida; Lexington Park, Maryland; Pensacola, Florida; and Irving, Texas again before finishing high school in my thirteenth school.

I have always wanted to be an astronaut. When I was born in Florida in 1962, my dad was working at the Kennedy Space Center building many of the first launch pads. My brother and I regularly sat on our grandparents' laps to watch Gemini-Titans and Saturn Vs launch from the Cape. I was bitten with the space-bug way back then, and just never shook it. I was also fascinated by the Leakeys' work in paleontology, and even corresponded with Richard Leakey on the subject of entering his field. As interesting as that work is, I knew I could never have the patience it requires. I would have given my right arm to play professional soccer too, but it turned out that I was a much better space guy than soccer player.

When I was 14 years old, under 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds, I worked at Camp Euchee, a Boy Scout camp in Florida, as a summer staff member. After washing dishes for the summer, my boss' boss, Tex Ritter, asked me what I wanted to do next year and laughed when I said I wanted to be a life guard on the water front. He asked me, "What is little Paul Hill going to do when some fat, old scout master falls in the lake and starts to drown?" I've always thought he was more impressed that I had an immediate answer than with the answer itself. I guess Old Tex decided maybe I was just tough enough to make up for being the smallest kid on the lake after all and let me have the job. I spent the next summer teaching swimming and life saving, and was one proud little guy. I have always thought about that day in Tex's office and smiled whenever a later boss would wonder if I was really ready to take on some new challenge.

I also remember all of my teachers, and almost every one of them taught me more than the subject at hand. The ones who really stand out in my memory, and who I regularly thank are Mrs. Martin, my 5th grade teacher and Mrs. Simpson my 12th grade English teacher; Calvin Tucker my first high school soccer coach; and Dr. Walter Horn, an aerospace engineering professor at Texas A&M. They were all people who expected us to do the best we could, not just get by. They also had a way of coaxing the best out of me that taught me much more than the school work.

Lt. Col. John Pretz was an Air Force boss of mine for a couple of years. He was a living example of unyielding integrity and good character. He regularly and unapologetically demonstrated that doing the right thing is the only answer, whether there are easier answers or not. I'm still working to someday measure up to John Pretz.

As a kid, I liked to read. My 5th grade teacher Mrs. Martin brought reading to life for me and introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien, both of which made me an avid reader for life. I love anything from Ayn Rand, Tolkien and Hugo. I read every Tom Clancy novel, as they come out. I have also read much of John Keegan's military history.

My standout favorites in fiction are Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien; Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand; and The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo. My favorites in non-fiction are The Ominous Parallels, Leonard Peikoff; Philosophy, Who Needs It, Ayn Rand; and Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, A. J. Langguth. None of these encouraged me to pursue a career in space, but they did encourage me to think. Like the best teachers, most of these books expanded my outlook on life in more ways than just the story they tell, especially Rand's and Hugo's.

Advice to Students

Take math and science seriously. Take English just as seriously, because if you can't communicate, it doesn't matter how good you are at the technical work. Become comfortable doing and learning new things, that could mean sports or orienteering skills, scouting, debating teams, etc. The people who stand out in our business are the types who aren't afraid to try things and have talents in many of them.

If you're going to spend any of your time on something, make it worth the price and always do the best you can. Believe in yourself. Never compromise on issues of integrity and principle. Don't be afraid to step out of line and try something other folks won't or can't.


I live in League City, Texas, which is a suburb of Houston on the south side of Clear Lake. We've lived in the same house since I came to Johnson Space Center in 1990, which makes this the longest I've lived anywhere by far.

I've been married to the former Pam Gerber for 16 years and have two daughters. My friends kid me that Pam would make a better flight director than me, and they're probably right. Chelsea is 13, is in the Science Magnet program at her school, and is busier with school, band, soccer, volleyball, track, cross-country and more than I could ever keep up with. Aly is 10, rambunctious and following in her sister's footsteps juggling all kinds of interests and activities.

We love to hang out with friends around the swimming pool and to travel. We always have at least one trip in the planning stages for the upcoming year, and we're trying to see as many of the interesting places across our country as we can. If we can snow ski while we're at it, then all the better.

I'm still an avid reader, although my interests are drifting more and more to military history, western philosophy and American history, particularly the Constitution and the evolution of the ideals it embodies. I've played soccer off and on since getting out school, and coached both of my daughters' teams for eight years. I could be content traveling around the country with family and friends, continuing my "self study" on the GreatExperiment, snow skiing, playing the occasional outdoor soccer game and squeezing in a manned space flight every now and then.

Future Plans and Goals

Like many people in NASA, I want to help put man back on the moon and then get out of low earth orbit permanently. Today, that means finishing the construction of the International Space Station. I am also very interested in revolutionary shifts in launch technology which could significantly reduce the cost and risk of reaching orbit, ultimately leading to real space tourism.

At the personal level, most of my goals now center on teaching my 10 and 13-year old daughters the things they need to know to go out in the world with the self-confidence to do anything they want to do. I also have a growing stack of books to plow through, mostly American and military history and philosophy.

Fun space launch facts: As the shuttle leaves the pad, there are 7 million pounds of fire pouring out of the engines. The fire is 2/3 as hot as the sun, reaches a pressure in the main engines 400 times higher than air pressure at sea level, and accelerates the shuttle from zero to over 17,000 mph in just over 8 minutes.



Footer Bar Graphic
SpacerSpace IconAerospace IconAstrobiology IconWomen of NASA IconSpacer
Footer Info