Name: Holly Griffith
Location: Houston, TX
Occupation: Engineer/Space Shuttle Flight Controller
When a child declares that they want to be an astronaut when they grow up, rarely do they stick with that idea all the way through adulthood. Holly Griffith is an exception to the rule. Growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, she always wanted to be an astronaut, and today she’s one of the people behind the scenes when space shuttles hit the sky.
Holly was greatly influenced by her father, who was a huge fan of science fiction, Star Wars, and Star Trek. Her family also had a telescope, which allowed this young Princess Leia wannabe to gaze at the stars. Holly’s dad helped her to build a rich fantasy life, which she needed to combat the very real medical emergencies that occurred all too regularly at her house.
“My dad had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). He would have to be rushed to the emergency room at random times of the day or night because he wouldn’t be able to breathe. When I was younger, my mom wouldn’t want to leave me alone in the house, so I would go along. Lots of times it would be at two or three in the morning, and we would stay there for several hours. Because of this, I’d miss part of school the next morning, so I was continuously having to catch up on my work,” Holly recalls.
Even though she played catch-up in school, and faced health crises at home, Holly never felt that she was limited. Her parents always told her that she could achieve anything she desired, and they stressed the importance of education. She was pushed to get a degree, and was supported by her parents as she decided to study engineering, with the hope that one day she could work for NASA. Using her engineering degree and applying her passion for space allowed Holly to become a Flight Controller for the Space Shuttle Electrical Power System after applying for a job at Johnson Space Center.
Although the work varies tremendously depending on their schedule, a typical, non-flying day for Holly consists of training simulations, ranging from four to eight hours, and then a Flight Controller Training Session for two hours. There’s also paperwork and meetings, just like any other job. When there’s a shuttle flying, three teams work in Mission Control non-stop. “On the last Shuttle mission, STS-131, I was coming in at 1AM and getting off at 10AM,” Holly says. “We also work weekends and holidays. Orbital mechanics don’t change for our calendars!”
Holly’s first certified flight was STS-117. She remembers that all did not go as planned. “Some of the computers on the International Space Station stopped working, these computers controlled altitude adjustments for the Station. We were docked and having to use the Shuttle to control the altitude for the Station, since it couldn’t do it on its own. We had to power down and conserve fuel so that we could stay docked longer and give engineers on the ground more time to troubleshoot the problem. If we didn’t, then we’d have to abandon the Station,” she says. “Luckily, we figured out what was causing the problem and we were able to fix it, but when it was all going on it was very stressful.” Talk about a hard day at work!
Fortunately for Holly, most missions aren’t fraught with faulty computers, and she’s still wowed by what she does. “It’s very cool to think that there is a spaceship orbiting our planet with people on it, and in some way you’re responsible for keeping it working correctly.” Her hard work, certification, training, and education all led to her place working on those very flights, and they really are a boost to the rest of her life on earth. “It gives you a lot of self-confidence and makes you think that after this, other, smaller things aren’t so difficult. And when the mission is over and we touch down, it’s a feeling of great accomplishment.”
Even though there are far fewer women than men in her workplace, Holly believes that the bonds between her fellow workers are much better than in most other jobs. The vast amounts of training and the struggle to get certified are universal regardless of gender, and that equality allows for there to be mutual respect across the board. “I’ve been told that in Flight Control, women may actually be better suited for the job, because in addition to engineering, there’s a lot of communication involved, and some studies suggest that women are naturally better at that,” she says.
These days, Holly finds that her biggest challenge at work is simply the future of the space program. The President and Congress have to see eye-to-eye in order for any continuation to be assured. In the meantime, the situation is somewhat bleak. “We’ve been told that there will be a lot of layoffs in the coming months,” she says. “My job is in jeopardy, along with many of my friends and coworkers once the last Space Shuttle flies later this year.”
Despite the uncertainty, Holly is still dedicated to the space program. “I can’t remember a time in my life that I either wasn’t trying to work at NASA or that I was actually working at NASA. I couldn’t see myself in another field of engineering and still getting the same sense of satisfaction,” she says. Although her experience will certainly provide her with a perfect springboard to move onto the next program, the impending loss of the current one is profound. Times have changed, and Holly wishes there were a way to draw attention to the continuing need for the program to progress.
“People were naturally psyched about space in the 1960’s, we didn’t need to do anything else but our jobs,” she says. “Today space has become common, and people don’t understand why it’s important, or how it benefits their lives here on Earth. Walking on the moon is something that my generation and every other generation since has grown up with, they don’t know anything else. Big things like that are needed to excite people and capture their imaginations. It was our human spaceflight program that made me go into engineering; what’s inspiring kids now?”
Holly believes that the formula to fix this comes in two parts. First, people are needed to spread the word and their love of space to the younger generation. Putting people back on the moon, or even going to Mars, would help to generate passion, enthusiasm, and daydreaming about shuttle flight, thereby increasing the visibility and relevance of a space program. Then, perhaps more importantly, the general public needs to be made aware of why they need to continue to fund a space program. “Show people where their money is going, the new technologies that are here today as a direct result of people going into space,” she says. “When people see the cost versus the rewards, they usually decide it’s worth doing.”
Holly continues to use space as her muse, and hopes one day to be one of those astronauts in orbit, perhaps as one of the inaugural space explorers during the program’s next iteration. But as the final Shuttle Mission takes off a few months from now, remember that behind the scenes, there is a seriously Cool Girl!
Photo note: The group picture is from the STS-120 mission. “It’s the first and only time there was a female Space Shuttle Commander and a female International Space Station Commander at the same time,” Holly explains. “The group is all of the female Flight Controllers from STS-120, with the female astronauts from that mission on the screen behind us.”