NASA flight director, AAE alum Flores 'humbled' by new role

Marcos Flores was "shocked" when he was selected in a six-member class of NASA flight directors in July. And proud. "Coming from Puerto Rico and having the aspirations I've had, this is something that's going to mean a lot, not just to myself but to everybody around me," he says.
Marcos Flores, who earned a master's online from Purdue in 2015, is part of a six-member class of NASA flight directors.
Marcos Flores, who earned a master's online from Purdue in 2015, is part of a six-member class of NASA flight directors.

Pablo Flores and Daisy Rodriguez were getting annoyed.

Seemingly every time they handed a new toy to son Marcos, he’d dismantle it, desperate to determine the concept of each one. That curiosity was an early indication of a burgeoning engineer. Funny, though: All the space-related toys they bought Marcos as a kid? Those didn’t get broken down.

So to foster Marcos’s interest in all things space, Pablo and Daisy always made sure to put space shuttle launches on TV for him to watch.

They kept providing those space toys, even LEGOs, which were the ideal solution because they invited assembly … and disassembly.

They incorporated a special experience into the family’s first trip to the Continental United States from Puerto Rico. Disney World may have been the ultimate destination, but a stop at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was the real highlight for a then-9-year-old Marcos.

“That was my first time at a NASA center,” Marcos says, “and that definitely sealed the deal for me for sure.”

From that point, he was determined NASA would be his career destination.

But just where he would best fit wasn’t quite clear -- until he actually started working there.

Flores (MSAAE ’15) began full-time at NASA in 2010, and he quickly realized flight director was a position that could deliver significant impact. So when applications for the most recent class were being accepted in March, he submitted a resume. He didn’t really expect much, considering he’d heard there was a small chance of being selected when applying for the first time.

But then he got the call in mid-July.

He was in, part of a six-member class that also included fellow AAE alum Allison Bolinger

“It was one of those things that I had to go talk to someone and figure out, ‘Hey, is this really happening?’ I just couldn’t believe,” he says. “It was very shocking for me, and I’m still shocked in a way. Even though I know I’ve got the experience, and I know I’ve done a lot of work to get to a place where I can potentially have this position, it was still a surprise. Just being part of a very small group of people who have been leading human space flight in the last 60 years, it’s an honor.

“Coming from Puerto Rico and having the aspirations I’ve had, this is something that’s going to mean a lot, not just to myself but to everybody around me, my family, my friends and the people back home. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions, not just because I got selected, but because of the meaning of the selection for me and the people around me. It’s very humbling.”

Flores (MSAAE '15)
Flores (MSAAE '15)

Early signs

Certainly his parents, if no one else, saw the signs early on. It’s why they encouraged Marcos at every step.

By the time he was ready for college, he was locked in on engineering. He earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.

And made to get in the door at NASA.

His first internship with the agency was in the summer of 2008, working at the Langley Research Center. Then, he helped develop initial concepts for a robotic arm for an experimental-type research rover at that particular lab. He followed that stint with two at Johnson Space Center in Houston, the first the following fall, in 2008. He worked in the simulation systems group doing low-level code development for new simulators that were going to be used in training. The next summer, he was back at JSC, working systems engineering for the same group. This time, he was involved in high-level software engineering as the group was working to develop new simulation systems that were going to be used for the International Space Station and future vehicles.

Because Flores didn’t go through the standard co-op program and get hired after college, he had to apply. But it still worked: He was hired as a systems engineer in 2010 in Houston.

Only a year later, though, he felt like something was missing.

Flores always had wanted to obtain a master’s degree, “just to gather additional knowledge.” But Puerto Rico didn’t have an aerospace program, he says.

“Given that was my interest, I wanted to fulfill that goal still,” he says.

He learned about Purdue’s distance graduate program in aerospace engineering and enrolled in 2011. Flores, whose master’s advisor was Professor Dan DeLaurentis, had a concentration in Aerospace Systems.

“It was pretty challenging to have a full-time job and start working toward a master’s,” Flores says. “When you come off work, you take classes, watch lessons and take tests. So it was very challenging for a while, but I was very satisfied when I finished it a couple years later.”

Flores says his coursework helped him better grasp what he does at NASA, especially as it relates to how complicated systems interface and integrate with each other. That’s one of the most challenging aspects about doing things in space, he says, just how convoluted all the systems are and how they need to come together to be able to execute missions.

Education on orbit mechanics, dynamics, probability and statistics, and even risk management, proved helpful in the job Flores was doing at the time, he says, but also the job he’ll be doing soon: As a flight director. 

Flores initially was interested in space as a kid, solidified by a trip to NASA Johnson as a 9-year-old.
Flores initially was interested in space as a kid, solidified by a trip to NASA Johnson as a 9-year-old.

'An exciting time'

Practical experience during previous jobs at NASA certainly were crucial in landing the new position.

Other than being a systems engineer, Flores also was a flight controller, managing the station’s power and external thermal control. As a flight controller, he worked with internal teams and their engineering and operations counterparts, and he also was the lead test conductor for the MCC-21 Project, a state-of-the-art platform upgrade to the mission control center. In the latter role, Flores was able to showcase leadership and problem-solving skills, he says, both key traits for a flight director.

“I’ve always had a tendency to be good at leading, in terms of leading people and projects. It’s something that’s come very natural to me,” Flores says. “People tend to look up to me based on my confidence and how I handle situations, especially tough ones. A lot of people have expressed they’re really comfortable with me being in a leadership position because of my decision-making abilities, my focus, my goals and my objectives and making sure we always do whatever we set out to do successfully. I’ve always received positive feedback in how good I am at listening and taking everybody’s questions, concerns and issues into account and making sure we come to agreement to what we should do to move forward.

“I’ve always been very approachable as a person, too. People really enjoy talking to me, working with me, communicating with me. I try and keep an open mind about everything. I’m not necessarily hard-headed, and that’s one of the things that’s key in this new role is to be able to listen to people so we don’t miss anything important in the conversations that need to happen.”

Flores will spend the next year or so sharpening those skill sets and improving in other areas while going through training for the new position.

He says he’s not in a rush to sit on the console at mission control. The important thing is to be as ready as he can be to execute the job well, he says.

Training is an important piece of that, as he’ll be exposed to new disciplines, new flight operations, new space systems as well as standard simulation training.

“The burden and responsibility of being a flight director is incredible,” he says, “and you want to make sure you’re really ready when you sit on that console and are the ultimate authority in terms of executing the mission and making sure we keep everything safe. So it’s going to be challenging at first. In this business, there’s always learning. So even as we get certified within a year, we’re always going to learn something new. We’re going to have to learn a lot more about what it takes to go back into deep space exploration, which is something we haven’t really done in a while. So there’s going to be a lot of learning down the road, no matter what.”

But Flores always has loved learning, whether as a kid trying to figure out how toys worked or pulling double-duty as a full-time employee while earning his master’s.

And he knows, usually, that passion and persistence is rewarded.

“I’m really excited to see what happens with NASA in the next couple years, the commercial crew vehicles and also our Orion program and going back to the moon and all the other things that we as an agency have set out to do,” he says. “We’re going to be in the forefront of that for sure.

“It’s a very exciting time to be in this position. The space program in general and human space flight, I see it as a big boom that’s about to happen, with all the things we’re doing with the commercial partners and all the other things the agency has laid out in terms of the mission for the next decade or two.”