Johnson Space Center
Iowa State University, B.S. in Aerospace Engineering
My name is Mike Lammers, a NASA Flight Director at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As one of a handful of active Flight Directors, I lead the ground team in Mission Control as well as the crew on board the International Space Station. While I have been at JSC for nearly 20 years, my first real interaction with NASA came as part of the Space Grant program when I was an Aerospace Engineering undergraduate at Iowa State University in the early 1990s.
While the formal engineering curriculum was excellent, I found that I needed an outlet to my curiosity about space as well as my creative energies beyond prescribed coursework. I was very fortunate that through the Iowa Space Grant as well as some visionary staff and graduate students, a small laboratory (the Spacecraft Systems and Operational Laboratory) had been set up.
This lab provided a much needed practical resource to engineering students like myself who wanted to gain hands on experience on projects related to NASA research or which required the same sort of engineering process that NASA used. The lab was the only entity at the university where undergraduates could actually work on projects that would fly in space.
The Iowa Joint Experiment in Microgravity Solidification (IJEMS) was a small payload flown as part of the Space Industries Wake Shield satellite carrier on space shuttle mission STS-69 in 1995. Almost the complete design, fabrication, programming, and integration of the project were performed by students directly and very quickly when a flight opportunity opened up. I distinctly remember the celebration when we managed to talk a vendor into giving us a few single board computers to fly which was a significant achievement for our team.
After that mission we satisfied our needs to fly hardware by establishing the High Altitude Balloon Experiments in Technology (HABET) program, which flew small payloads and cameras to about 100,000 feet beneath wind driven weather balloons and then parachuted them back to the ground in missions that lasted about four hours. Students again built GPS based tracking packages and radio links to the ground so we could track and recover the payloads when they came down, usually in a farm field within 100 miles from the launch site. Today many groups and individuals fly these types of balloons using now much more readily available technology in the form of smartphones but HABET was one of the first student based projects to do these flights 20 years ago.
My most valuable real world experience came out of those projects. I had to work as an element of a team and make a contribution where there was no well-defined solution available, because nobody else knew how to do it! The problems and projects we were working on did not have prescribed answers, we had to figure it out on our own and be resourceful.
While interviewing for positions around the country, companies were interested in grades and coursework, but what they really asked me about in interviews was the collaborative work on the Space Grant sponsored projects. After I was hired, some of the skills that I found most useful were still those I acquired in the lab.
Today the projects I work on continue to be interesting and exceedingly diverse. In the last few years, I have run teams that deployed the first internet access for the Space Station crew, installed upgraded satellite communications systems, executed spacewalks, captured a Dragon cargo vehicle, and most recently, I was the lead Flight Director for the Expedition 45 crew. Along with that I spend a sizable proportion of my time running individual shifts in Mission Control. I still have a few now professional colleagues that I first met working on Space Grant projects and I continue to be impressed with how much of an impact such a modest investment has had on these graduates.