When the space shuttle Atlantis completes its 11-day mission next week, Paul Dye will engrave the name of the mission -- STS-115 -- on the head of a railroad spike once used by the Duluth, Messabi, and Iron Range Railroad. It's one of the few sentimental traditions the Roseville native allows himself in a workplace dominated by science and engineering. He's NASA's lead flight director for the Atlantis mission.
Dye has a box full of Iron Range spikes, each marking a successful mission, on his desk. "The Iron Range is my ancestral home," he says. "My NASA call sign of 'Iron Flight' was chosen to honor my grandfather, who worked in the iron mines that have generated so much of the industrial might of our nation."
Dye, 48, was born in Bemidji but grew up in the Twin Cities suburb. He says he doesn't "remember a time when I wasn't interested in flying machines." His friends say they always knew he would grow up to fly rockets, since he was often building and flying model rockets as a kid. "We weren't poor, but my friends would build the rockets and I had only enough money to buy the engines."
Even after years with NASA, he sounds surprised when talking about his path to being in charge of flights involving what NASA says is the most complex machine ever made.
He had a different route in mind. "At the airport, we found a couple of wrecked J-3 Cubs when I was a kid. We rebuilt them and then we got to fly in them for (only the cost of) gas and oil. I was going to build airplanes," he says. He soloed at 16, got his pilot's certificate at 17, and headed for the University of Minnesota aeronautical engineering program at 18. "I thought I'd go to work at Bellanca (an airplane manufacturer) up in Alexandria. But they went out of business during my junior year in high school."
Instead, he helped build the space shuttle program.
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"I figured, 'I've got to go find something to do with my life.' I was a good student, but not a 4.0 kind of student, but I got a job at NASA. They liked my resume. They saw that I was a professional diving instructor too and they said 'this guy knows operations, let's put him in mission control.'" He took the job because "I hadn't had any better offers," he said. He worked his way up the ranks as a flight controller at the mission control facilities in Houston. He worked on shuttle systems starting in 1993 and was eventually selected as a flight director.
He works closely with the shuttle crew, but the crew of the current shuttle mission is particularly close. "It was selected before the Columbia accident," he says. "So we've been working together for four years."
"We start with an assignment about a year before the flight--in this case it was considerably before that because we've been getting ready for this one for a while. We're responsible for making sure that the operations are ready to go. We help build the procedures... (and)orchestrate building the procedures and the rules and the training. Building the team and getting all of those elements together and then going ahead and flying the mission," he says.
Though he acknowledges the stresses of his jobs as lead flight director, Dye says the hours he and the shuttle crew put in before the flight pay off. "We do a simulation once a week," he says, "and in the simulation everything is always breaking and always broken. We live in a world of malfunctions" as NASA tries to simulate things that go wrong. "We're always dealing with a crisis, then you get to the flight itself and things go well and you say, 'wow, this is really great!'"
"You never really relax when you're flying with a big spacecraft," he recalled recently in an oral history project of NASA's, "and you're responsible for half a million pounds of spacecraft up there, but I think the more tense times come, for instance, in the last two weeks before flight.
"We have something that we talk about, that was described to me when I came here. I wasn't here for Apollo, but it was described to me as the 'burning rocks syndrome.' People tend to keep little problems in the back of their minds until they get really close to flight, and they can't stand it anymore and they have to bring those issues up.
"It's called 'burning rocks' because apparently just before the Apollo 11 moon landing, some scientist, who was well respected in his field said, 'I'm really afraid that when the lunar module engine touches the moon, that it could be the wrong composition of chemicals and the moon might explode.' And, of course, he brought this up a couple of hours before powered descent. Well, [I'm sure the flight director thought], thank you very much, but couldn't you have told me about this before we went to the moon? Now what do I do with this problem?"
During a mission, flight controllers work in three shifts, with the lead flight director working from midnight until most other people -- people other than space crews, anyway -- are heading to work. He says he has a difficult time sleeping early in a shuttle mission, but gets used to the hours after a few days.
Dye, however, says he finds flying his own plane a diversion, even during shuttle flights. And the man who thought he'd grow up to build airplanes did exactly that. Over several years, Dye built a two-seat airplane -- called an RV-8 -- in his garage, made his first flight last year, and finally painted it --- with shuttle flight director logos --- a few months ago. "I love landing airplanes," he says.
Next week, he'll help land a big one.