Flight Director. NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Challenger Center Inspiration to Become a Flight Director

Attended Challenger Learning Centers in Challenger Learning Center of Woodstock

Chris Dobbins first visited Challenger Learning Center of Woodstock (Illinois) during a field trip in 2001 when he was in the 5th grade. He returned the following summer for camp, and then continued as a summer camp volunteer throughout his high school and college years

Now a Flight Director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), Chris leads teams of flight controllers, research and engineering experts, and support personnel around the world during human spaceflight missions. He makes the real-time decisions that are critical to keeping astronauts safe in space. Chris was inducted into NASA’s 2022 class of Flight Directors who oversee operations of the International Space Station, commercial crew, and Artemis missions to the Moon.

How did your Challenger Center experience influence your pursuit of becoming a Flight Director?

Shortly before I first visited Challenger Learning Center of Woodstock for my class field trip, I was completely inspired by the movie Apollo 13 and was very intrigued by space exploration. A lot of people saw the movie and said, “I want to go to the moon as an astronaut,” but I really looked up to the people on the ground who got the astronauts home safely.

During our mission at the Center, I held the navigation (NAV) role, where I worked with my classmates to identify the correct coordinates of the comet our team planned to intercept. I enjoyed the teamwork it required to accomplish our mission and remember that even though each student had their own role to fulfill, we had to prepare and work together as a class to see it through.

Now, one of my favorite parts of working in NASA’s Mission Control is how much teamwork matters in our daily work. We all rely on others to be successful—that reliance produces mutual support, encouragement, and growth in one another.

My experience at Challenger Learning Center of Woodstock was life-changing. It cemented my dream to work in NASA’s Mission Control and be a part of making human space exploration happen.

What was your path to becoming a NASA Flight Director?

I graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and spent my summers working at JSC through the Pathways Intern Program. Walking into Mission Control as a student was so rewarding. I was shocked to learn how much it met my expectations without knowing what went on day-to-day. I really enjoyed the people and the ways they worked together.

After graduation, I started my full-time career as a space station Environmental and Thermal Operating Systems (ETHOS) flight controller, logging more than 2,500 hours of console time and serving as a lead ETHOS for the International Space Station Expedition 56 and several spacewalks. I then supported the Boeing Starliner spacecraft as an Emergency, Environmental, and Consumables Manager (EECOM) flight controller, working in Mission Control for the company’s two uncrewed flight tests for NASA.

Additionally, I had the opportunity to serve as launch and landing EECOM for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2, while helping develop operational strategies and conducting astronaut training for the company’s crewed flight test mission, including crewed vehicle emergency response procedures.

Throughout my experiences, I had mentors asking if I’d ever consider applying for a Flight Director position. The first time I was asked was unexpected. My goal had always been to just get into the flight control room and support a human spaceflight mission there. With the help of a few key mentors, I started to realize how I might be able to contribute to NASA’s human spaceflight missions as a Flight Director, so I decided to apply.  After a couple of application attempts, I was one of seven applicants hired for the 2022 flight director class. Now, I’m NASA’s 102nd flight director, and I most look forward to having the opportunity to lead teams of brilliant and dedicated people who will continue to safely put our astronauts in low Earth orbit, as well as return humans to the moon.

Who inspires you and why?

I’ve been fortunate to meet many inspiring people in STEM throughout my career: Astronauts, engineers, skilled technicians, scientists, logistics experts, and others who support making human spaceflight happen. I’m so thankful to the friends, coaches, and mentors who have all helped me develop and grow into who I am today. I wouldn’t be here without their support, and the dedicated, caring, and hardworking people I work with are what makes NASA such a special place to work.

Why do you believe STEM education is so critical at a young age?

Not only does STEM shape every part of our daily lives today—from the food we eat to the entertainment we consume to the way we communicate and move from place to place—it also has a unique capacity to inspire and challenge us to grow. Much like great art, STEM education at a young age has the potential to show children new ways to dream. And with that dream, challenge themselves to dedicate their lives to meaningful work that will improve the lives of others and advance our knowledge as a civilization.

What piece of advice do you have for kids who are interested in pursuing STEM and/or space-related careers?

Being successful in STEM is about far more than being good at science and math…being a well-rounded person is a good thing! As a 12-year-old, I caddied at a country club near my home in Illinois. I was pretty shy and awkward, especially around adults. This experience really allowed me to develop time management skills, take accountability for my actions, and connect with others. The greatest skill I learned that carries over to this day is learning how to talk to and connect with others—how to quickly identify what a person values and make a connection. If you can do that, you’ll be successful in any avenue you pursue.