AAE alum Bolinger eager to take next step at NASA, as flight director

Allison Bolinger (BSAAAE '04) wasn't sure she could leave the comfort and familiarity of NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab. But when she took a leap, she was rewarded: By being selected into an elite group at the agency.
Allison Bolinger moved into an elite corps in July, being named a flight director at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Allison Bolinger moved into an elite corps in July, being named a flight director at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Allison Bolinger was happy.

Ridiculously so.

As deputy chief for NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, Bolinger (BSAAE ’04) enjoyed directing the day-to-day operations of its 6.2-million-gallon pool used to train astronauts for spacewalks by imitating zero gravity of space.

So when the opportunity arose to apply for the new class of NASA flight directors, Bolinger hesitated. Because she loved where she was. And because she remembered what happened the last time she applied.

Bolinger (BSAAE '04)
Bolinger (BSAAE '04)

In 2015, Bolinger thought she was ready to make the leap. She felt her experience as a flight controller and instructor in the Extravehicular Activities (EVA) group, essentially training astronauts for spacewalks, had sharpened the leadership and decision-making skills, among other things, required to become a flight director.

But she wasn’t selected.

And she was “devastated.”

“I felt like, ‘I’m great. I’ve got really good things to bring to the office. I’ve got a good head on my shoulders. I’m ready for this challenge.’ When they said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ I was depressed,” Bolinger says.

Since then, she’d moved from working as the lead spacewalk flight controller to running the NBL, a job she described as a great change of pace and a more relaxed work lifestyle that had her “really, really happy.” So why would she leave that? For a more stressful, longer-hour type situation? Especially when that meant revisiting the emotions and the disappointment from the last time?

Simple, really: Because though Bolinger’s initial childhood aspirations may have changed – shifting from astronaut to training them to operating the lab that offers training – she’d never really given up on the ultimate goal at NASA she identified as a 19-year-old.

Then, during one of her co-op rotations at NASA while a Purdue student, Bolinger heard Gene Kranz speak. Kranz was “the guy,” one of NASA’s first flight directors who led the Apollo 13 mission. And she knew perhaps the most rewarding piece of being involved in EVAs was being on the console, having to make real-time decisions and directing astronauts who were outside their spacecraft.

So it was time to try again.

“When I really took stock of, ‘What do I want to do? Where do I think I can make the biggest contributions to NASA overall?’ It’s definitely the flight director office,” she says. “While we’re doing great things at the NBL, I think I can make a bigger difference in the flight director office. So that’s what kind of pushed me over the edge.”

So she hastily updated her resume – she’d waited to decide until only three days before the application deadline – and then went through what she called a nerve-racking interview process before heading on vacation.

Even on vacation, she couldn’t settle her mind about the what ifs.

She entertained the thought that she’d get a call while scaling the side of a mountain in Canada – based off an IMAX movie she’d seen at a museum in which a woman hanging off the side of the cliff got a call asking, “Do you want to be an astronaut?”

Bolinger didn’t get the call then, though.

But after returning from vacation, she was asked into her "boss's boss's boss’s" office and told the news: She’d been selected as one of six members in the latest class who will lead mission control at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“When I finally got the show-up-to-the-big-boss’s-office call, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this real? Is this actually happening?’” she says. “I was pretty stoked when I finally got the handshake saying, ‘Welcome to the office.’”

Bolinger, who returns to Purdue's campus on occasion, snapped this picture with the Armstrong statue in 2013.
Bolinger, who returns to Purdue's campus on occasion, snapped this picture with the Armstrong statue in 2013.

The journey

For Bolinger, it’s just another step in a considerable journey at NASA that she says started when she was just a kid.

In January 1986, Bolinger’s family had gathered at her great-grandmother’s home in Ohio, after the death of her great-grandfather. Bolinger, then not even 5, was plopped in front of the TV. The news showed replays of the main event of the day: The space shuttle Challenger’s explosion.

After that, whenever anyone asked Bolinger what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said an astronaut.

She was “obsessed” with NASA. She attended space camps as a sixth-grader and as a senior in high school. By the latter visit, her natural abilities toward engineering had surfaced, as she’d excelled in math and science. She’d also realized by then a tendency to get carsick and a fear of heights probably meant she wouldn’t be an astronaut.

But NASA still was a goal.

When it came to choosing a college, the Ohio native initially looked at schools in her home state. But she realized several operated on a quarter system, so that quickly eliminated them from the list because she knew NASA’s Cooperative Education Program wouldn’t line up with a quarter system.

She knew Purdue had the largest presence in the astronaut corps, aside from the military at the time, so she checked out the campus.

“I just fell in love,” she says.

The School of Aeronautics and Astronautics offered the ideal opportunity for Bolinger, allowing her to focus on astrodynamics as a discipline but also get off campus to apply what she was learning in courses in a real-world environment through NASA's co-op program. She did five co-op rotations while at Purdue and learned from each one, realizing which disciplines fit. The first three rotations – flight control, engineering and advance exploration – did not. But the last two? They were with the EVA training group.

“That was the perfect mix,” she says. “You not only had to understand how the entire space station was assembled and built, how every mechanism outside worked, how all the tools worked, so you had to use the engineering side of brain, but it was a lot of those soft skills, people interaction, because you were teaching the astronauts, too. So, to me, that was the perfect mix of engineering as well as hand’s on and interacting with the astronauts.”

Bolinger realizes her education played a role in identifying that passion within NASA.

“The worst thing would be to put all this time and effort into getting a degree and finally you go out and put it to use and then realize you don’t like what you’re doing. So, for me, being able to participate in internships was a great way to really test the degree while you were still earning it,” she says. “It was easy for me to go on internships while I was at Purdue.

“And my classes just really helped lay the foundation of being a good engineer and thinking through problems. The baseline of what you need here to work at NASA is how do you problem solve?”

Bolinger is eager to return to the console, after she finishes flight director training.
Bolinger is eager to return to the console, after she finishes flight director training.

The next step

That’s been a skill that has served Bolinger well at the agency, especially during her time on console during spacewalks when she was charged with making real-time decisions when something the crew tried may not have been working. And it’s a skill that will need to be flexed in the new role as flight director.

The new flight director class will spend about a year training before moving into mission control, and that’ll be a key learning period for Bolinger. She became a master of the spacesuit itself while working in EVA, and she knows how systems work in it. But in terms of the rest of the space station, she jokes she knows “just enough to be dangerous” when it comes to communications or life support or power generation aspects.

“I have to learn all that – or at least dust off those brain cells I haven’t used for a while,” she says. “I’m looking forward to that challenge of learning. I really, really enjoyed learning things at the NBL over the past year, so I’m looking forward to that again, just learning how the nuts and bolts of the space station actually work.”

But, when the time comes, she knows she’ll be ready to step into a position that is considered elite by NASA. There are currently only 26 flight directors in mission control in Houston – not counting Bolinger’s class – and there have been fewer than 100 to earn the distinction.

She knows she’ll be prepared to be in charge of looking out for crew safety, vehicle safety and completing objectives. She knows she’ll be pivotal in mission-planning stages, certainly, but especially when she’s in mission control. As flight director, she’ll have the final say.

But the responsibilities aren’t limited to missions involving the International Space Station. Bolinger also will work with commercial spacecraft partners, Boeing and SpaceX, that are getting to launch crewed vehicles to make sure their requirements are sound. She’ll also be involved in evaluating space exploration projects, whether it’s the Space Launch System (SLS) or the Orion crew module.

The demands will be considerable.

But Bolinger is ready, and she’ll be sure to bring a twist to mission control: Humor.

“One of the other flight directors was saying, ‘Now you have to learn what happens on the inside of the space station.’ Because at the NBL, we focus on the outside,” she says. “I said, ‘Wait, the inside? It’s full of water. My experience at the big pool, the inside of the space station is full of water. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

“I find that humor is a really good way, especially when you’re first forming a team, to allow people to break down barriers and feel more comfortable. I want it to be a really open environment. There are no dumb ideas. There are no dumb questions. Especially if you think we’re doing the wrong thing. Please, speak up. I find that injecting humor, of course when appropriate, but using humor to help forge those relationships is a really good way to do it.”

Publish date: July 19, 2018