How to get a job as a NASA flight controller

Written by Bob McCormick on 9/21/2006 07:40:00 PM

Due to somewhat popular demand, I've decided to post this.

These are the most common steps it takes to get a job as a NASA flight controller in Houston (i.e., for NASA human space flight). The amount of time it takes to become certified is a function of the organization's needs and your capabilities. What I've listed here is the basic path for flight controller certification.

1. Study well in High School and College. Your emphasis should most likely be in Science and Mathematics, as these provide the best foundation for working at NASA and in Aeronautics in general. However, you should also strive for a well-rounded education: English, Foreign Languages, and Humanities-based course work is also vital, and also should be studied well.

2. If you are not one, become a US citizen. Yeah, I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Nevertheless, you likely will not be hired to work in Mission Control in Houston. The only exception is if you work for an International Partner for the International Space Station (Russia, Japan, Canada, or one of the European Space Agency member countries) - and then, only in a limited capacity (i.e., to positions assigned for those Partners or as liaisons to control centers in the other Partner countries.

3. When in college, obtain a degree in something that correleates to a position in Mission Control. (Here's a link that describes all the positions.) This generally means that you should major in Engineering, but several other areas (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science) are acceptable for many positions. Some positions are suited for specific areas (examples: Pre-Med), but most of the others will work with an Engineering or science degree program. It's possible to get a flight controller position without an Engineering/Science degree, and several have, but they are generally rare.

Note 1: For Engineering, your degree needs to come from an accredited school. (Don't get too cheap - your career depends on getting this right.)

Note 2: Technology degrees are not Engineering degrees (even "Engineering Technology" degrees). If they were, then there would be no need to offer the two different types of degrees.

4. Actually get the degree. And by all means, do not come close to getting it and miss it by a class or two, then whine about how "all the people with Engineering degrees get the good jobs and I don't". If you're that close to finishing, just finish - stop trying to imply that the last few courses don't matter (and then attempt to build a career around that).

5. Apply to the organizations that are responsible for providing mission controllers. Currently, this includes NASA as well as several NASA contractors - the United Space Alliance, Barrios Technology, Cimarron (GC), and Wyle Labs (BME/Surgeon). Indicate that you wish to work in mission control. Your ability to be hired is dependent on your track record in college, and the needs of the organization. (Note that most of the organization knows it has openings that are generally tied to the Fiscal Year, which starts in October.) The organizations needs will drive your schedule to determine your certification as a flight controller.

6. After you are accepted, you will be expected to undergo training. Most controllers go through a series of classes called “Training Academy”, which can take upwards of 2 months.

7. Work with your branch to determine how you can get certified in a back room position. Almost all of the flight controllers that you see on TV in mission control have at least one person that assists them in particular tasks in another room away from the main room. These positions are considered “back room” flight controllers – and the “front room” controllers could not do their job without them. Virtually every flight controller in mission control has been a back room flight controller at some point.

8. At some point during the back room certification process, you will be required to undergo a medical evaluation and associated certification. This certification is the equivalent of an FAA Flight Controller medical certification and needs to be kept current with your other work-related certifications.

9. As you continue further specialized training for your position, you will be required to review a lot of technical material and participate in simulations. The simulations can be held with either one controller or an entire Flight control team (and astronaut crew). Certain conditions will be put into the simulation that will test your ability to respond.

10. Assuming you respond to the training and simulations correctly, your branch will certify you to be a flight controller. Congratulations!

11. Further tasks, training, and simulations are usually required before you will be certified in the main Flight Control room, which will also be driven by the organization’s needs.

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  1. 5 comments: Responses to “ How to get a job as a NASA flight controller ”

  2. By mark_smith on 4:34 PM

    Hi a great post yet again keep up the good work

    i lost my blog about a week ago for some reason because of this i have created a new blog with the following address

    http://marksmith-1986.blogspot.com/

    hope you enjoy

    mark_smith

  3. By Mama Duck on 9:43 AM

    Harder than it appears, eh?? Great post! Our how-to is up as well if you'd like to check it out!!

  4. By Anonymous on 7:40 PM

    Woo Hoo Just got certified today! Orbit EPS.

  5. By Anonymous on 2:01 AM

    Thanks for the great words of advice! It must be amazing to be a flight controller, as I can only hope to be one someday *laugh* anyways, I hope you keep blogging!
    Cheers.

  6. By Tim on 12:28 AM

    Just applied for an entry level ISS position. I have a BS in Aeronautics from ERAU which is a far cry from an engineering degree but I am hopeful that it and my Flight Engineer career in the Air Force will give me a chance. Great blog and good info.