When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Robert Dempsey (B.S. 1984) was six. Watching at home in Detroit, a young Dempsey stuffed his bathrobe with towels and tied himself to the bedpost with rope, spacewalking across his bedroom. It was the beginning of a life-long obsession with space exploration that would lead to work on the Hubble telescope and a coveted and select position at NASA. 

As one of only approximately two dozen flight directors at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Dempsey is often in charge of managing the big picture during spaceflights. During a mission, he’s in front of the big screens and flashing lights in NASA’s Mission Control — the job Ed Harris has in the movie Apollo 13, a fictional portrayal of an aborted moon landing so accurate the agency uses it to train new flight controllers. Humans have been living in the International Space Station (ISS) around the clock since 2000, and every minute Dempsey or one of the other flight directors has been on deck in Houston, watching over the crews and systems. “Failure,” as Ed Harris says in the movie, “is not an option.”

With over twenty years of managing crises large and small, Dempsey’s next challenge is to help bring commercial flights into space. Since the American space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to fly astronauts to the ISS, at a price of $80 million a seat. So in 2015, the agency decided to fund both Boeing and SpaceX, a start-up run by Elon Musk, in a race to develop reusable space taxis. While a SpaceX vessel exploded during tests this April, both companies claim their first crewed test flights will occur in 2019. Dempsey has been helping design the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, which will be able to ferry five passengers to the ISS. These kinds of public-private partnerships, Dempsey says, will be the future of space travel.

Disaster Becomes Opportunity

While Dempsey dreamed of being an astronaut, in middle school he discovered he needed glasses. Since all astronauts used to have to be fighter pilots, requiring perfect vision, Dempsey recalls, “It was crushing.” Determined to still join NASA, in middle school he called the agency to ask how to become a mission specialist, a new position of astronaut who handles training and support from the ground. He was told he needed a Ph.D. in science or engineering, so Dempsey double-majored in both physics and astronomy before getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Toledo, where he studied active stars’ magnetic fields. 

Continuing his research on how to map and study the properties of magnetic fields led Dempsey to work operating the Hubble telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and then to a position at a joint NASA-Max Planck Institute project operating satellites in Munich, Germany — where on one of the last nice fall days in 1991, Dempsey’s life suddenly changed. While biking home from watching a football game, he got in a minor accident. “I didn’t think much of it at the time,” he says, but in the middle of the night, he woke up vomiting and found the right side of his body paralyzed. At the hospital, Dempsey chatted with the doctors and technicians during his CAT scan, amused that the machine relied on the same algorithms he used in his astronomical research. Then he called his mother and was rushed into surgery. 

When he woke, Dempsey learned that only one in ten people survive such a brain injury, and those that do often have permanent mental disabilities. The accident was a wake-up call. “I realized while I loved astronomy, I wasn’t really exploring space.” So he blew his life up. “I literally got on a plane and came down to Houston to see if I could apply for a job at NASA. And I got lucky.” He’s been working on the International Space Station Program ever since. 

Big Blue Marble

With the Starliner, Dempsey has the opportunity to help develop what public-private space partnerships look like. He’s worked with Boeing to shape the Starliner’s design, ensuring it met NASA’s requirements. By working on the vessel from its inception, he’s well-placed to understand how the craft will fly. While Boeing finetunes the Starliner’s construction this spring, Dempsey and others at NASA have already begun simulations with the ISS team, writing the procedures they’ll need to use on the consoles, practicing with digital models, and running through the rendezvous and docking process with the ISS. “For all practical purposes,” he says, in these training modules “you can’t tell if it’s the real vehicle or the computer simulations.” Instructors will fail essential computer or power systems, and Dempsey will have to talk the team through how to recover functions.

He compares a flight director’s role to a doctor in an emergency room. “You’ve got to be able to think big picture,” he says. “You have to keep everyone working together and maintain focus.” And perhaps most importantly, you have to keep them calm. The problems the team must manage are often weirder than the ones they anticipate. “Real spacecraft are always more creative with failure,” he says. “We try to plan for every contingency, but that includes knowing there will be some curveballs.” 

Nor is Dempsey the only U-Michigan graduate among the handful of flight directors working on the commercial spacecraft. Dempsey will be joined in Mission Control by fellow alumnus Edward Van Cise (U-M 2000) and two other colleagues. All four will work in shifts to guide the inaugural commercial spacecraft to the ISS. 

If all goes well, NASA plans to start letting tourists travel to the ISS as soon as 2020 — provided they can cover the cost for the $35,000 entry ticket, and whatever the price to get there ends up costing. The agency plans to make one of the spacecraft’s five seats available for commercial customers, and to fly the spacecrafts as often as six times a year. 

Dempsey explains that partnering with commercial companies helps to both spur innovations and lower costs, an important cash infusion as NASA’s budget has dwindled. Eventually NASA plans to open the ISS itself up to commercial business and to build a small station around the moon, called Gateway. And President Trump has expressed interest in sending astronauts back to the moon. “If we’re going to return to the moon and Mars,” Dempsey says, “we need these partnerships.” 

But while spaceflight may be changing, the grit it takes to get one of these missions off the ground hasn’t. “Every day, we’re facing a new challenge,” Dempsey says. That’s why he now tells aspiring astronauts they can always pick up new skills — ”but we’re not looking for the best engineer in the world. We’re looking for a passionate person that is willing to solve problems and figure things out.” 



Images courtesy of NASA Johnson