In a special four-part feature Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team. NASA’s Orbit1 team remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts safe onboard.
These amazing individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.
The fourth and last interview in the series, features Natalie Gogins, ‘CRONUS Operator Flight Controller’ at NASA’s Mission Control.
Natalie’s role in NASA’s Mission Control Center is to monitor and configure systems to ensure the astronauts onboard the International Space Station are safe, and the space station itself. She talked to Rocket Women about the challenges that she overcame to become an engineer, her experience of being in Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey and sharing her love of space to inspire others!
What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?
From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth. In high school, I volunteered at aviation museums and took private pilot flight lessons. While researching potential college degrees, engineering drew me in. It required using creativity and knowledge to solve problems and make the world a better place. I chose a school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I started an Engineering Physics (which is a combination of Aeronautical Engineering and Space Physics) degree before I realized I wanted a major with more hands-on courses.
From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth.
I switched to Mechanical Engineering with a Robotics focus and, of course, modeled an International Space Station (ISS) robot arm for a class project. During my time at Embry-Riddle, I had internships with NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and The Boeing Company in my home state of Washington. I also got to float in a microgravity simulating plane twice!
These internships and experiences helped me gain confidence in my ability to succeed in “the real world” and allowed me to make connections for my future position. Before starting my career, however, I wanted to get a Master’s degree, so I attended Purdue University as a graduate researcher. Although my thesis work was in the field of hydraulics, I never lost my passion for space, and gladly returned to Johnson Space Center as a more experienced engineer to become a flight controller.
What does your average day look like in your role?
My day-to-day tasks vary as a CRONUS (Communications, RF, Onboard Network Utilization Specialist) flight controller. On average, I spend 7 days a month supporting the real-time ISS mission (known as being “on console”) in Houston’s Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1). I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle is healthy, and the mission is accomplished. I also get to work with people in Alabama (USA), Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia.
I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle [International Space Station] is healthy, and the mission is accomplished.
My group works with the computers and audio, video, telemetry, and commanding equipment. One of the best parts about being CRONUS is getting to control our external cameras to capture all kinds of exciting things such as an astronaut on EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity), hurricanes, experiments, or spacecraft.
When I’m not on console, I’m back in the office. Right now I’m training to become an Instructor so I can teach CRONUS flight controllers and astronauts and run simulations. Simulations are critical for training as they give uncertified controllers the chance to practice responding to failures and dealing with problems they’ve never seen before. Things in real life never happen or fail in ways you expect, so you have to know how to think on your feet and make the best decision possible.
I’m also privileged to serve as our division’s Morale, Awards, Recognition, and Social (MARS) Team lead. This gives me specific opportunities to use my creativity and organizational skills. It can be easy to get discouraged in an environment where we always evaluate how something can be better next time, but learning and interacting as a team reminds us why we love working at NASA and why we can’t give up on being our best.
Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?
I was on a 7-day overnight shift throughout Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Texas. This set of shifts is already extremely challenging, but the hurricane made it seem like an unbelievably long week. Based on the weather reports, I wanted to pack everything I might need if I was stuck at NASA for the full 7 days, just in case the roads flooded. I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising. I brought lots of food and water and towels and blankets and drove to work early Friday morning.
I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising.
It didn’t seem like much of a storm until Sunday night. During our normal LOS (loss of signal) with the satellites, when flight controllers get up to use the restroom and grab food, we instead went down to the first floor to check on the parking lot. That night, the water rose to 6” or about 15 cm below my car. Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive it up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.
Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive my car up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.
What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey?
As the hours and shifts went on, there were so many friends and co-workers with stories of water creeping in to their homes and vehicles. Harvey was forecasted to keep dumping rain on us for days to come. But, we all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.
We all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.
We had cots set up in other flight control rooms and even some conference rooms. It almost felt like camping or being back in a college dorm. When the roads were drained enough later in the week, people brought us homemade bread and meals. One of my co-workers edited the Flight Operations patch in honor of our trying week. Instead of ad astra per aspera, “to the stars through difficulty”, it says ad astra per aqua or aquam, “to the stars through water”.
The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever. And, when we were relaxing after shifts, it was wonderful to see all the people that donated their time and risked their lives to try and rescue others during the storm and then helped clean out flooded homes. Houston was just the place I lived, but now, it truly feels like home.
The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever.
Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?
From a personal perspective, Harvey gave me a tiny taste of what life as a first responder or as a soldier might be like (minus feeling like your own life is at risk). You’re away from family and worried about their well-being, yet the only thing you can do is focus on the task in front of you. It’s not like a movie scene with inspirational music and a montage that gets you through the difficult times in 2 min or less. Instead, you do as you were trained and focus on helping those around you.
At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site.
At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site. I knew my husband and third floor apartment were safe and my eye mask and earplugs were helping me get enough sleep, so I continued on.
I will forever be thankful for the sacrifice of those around the world who take care of strangers even on the darkest of days, and I hope my minor sacrifice of working all my overnight shifts so someone else didn’t have to helped in some small way. My thoughts and prayers were with those out in the storm, scared and waiting for help.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?
The most rewarding moments in my young career are the times when I overcame a challenge or when I get to share my love for space with others.
Getting an engineering degree was not easy for me; it was the first time in my life that I had to persevere over several years. School had always felt easy to me until I started college. I used to start assignments early so I had enough time to ask the professor questions, go to tutoring, or push through it myself. When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.
When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.
The other thing I love about my career is that I get to inspire other people. From talking to a 3rd grade class about space travel to volunteering at a career fair, I love to see the look on young faces when they find out I work at NASA. There are so many who want to know about life in space and what’s happening next. I hope that some of them get that same spark of passion for exploration that leads them to STEM fields and maybe even to space.
If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
I’m thankful for where my path in life has taken me, but if I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.
If I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.
Being happy with who you are, or having the bravery to change something for the better, is what matters. It’s worth it to push yourself and fight for what you love, just know that the path toward an extraordinary life is not an easy one. You cannot recognize success without knowing failure.
Natalie’s flight control group also controls the International Space Station’s (ISS) external cameras, and recently supporting this Soyuz docking to the ISS, carrying three astronauts: