Meet: Paul Hill
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
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.
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
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.