Holly Ridings ’96 assumed her role as chief flight director for NASA in 2018 and is responsible for managing the group of active flight directors and flight directors-in-training, an elite team responsible for human spaceflight missions.

When most Aggies leave College Station, they tend to find their purpose somewhere on Earth. Holly Ridings ’96 aimed a little higher. During the course of her career, a love of problem-solving and an unshakeable belief in the power of a team led Ridings to the helm of Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center as the first female chief flight director for NASA.  

Ridings assumed her role in 2018 and is responsible for managing the group of active flight directors and flight directors-in-training, an elite team responsible for human spaceflight missions. Her appointment came as the result of years of hard work and dedication at NASA, beginning after she was first hired in 1998 as a flight controller in the thermal operations group.

She was first selected as a flight director in 2005 and has since served as the lead flight director for several missions, including International Space Station mission Expedition 16 in 2007-2008; Space Shuttle Program mission STS-127 in 2009; and the first SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft mission to the space station in 2012, which marked the beginning of an age where commercial companies participate in spaceflight.

Ridings is the latest in a short line of highly capable individuals in the same role, such as Gene Kranz, chief flight director for the Apollo 11 mission. As often as the phrase “first female flight director” precedes her name, Ridings sees her gender as irrelevant to her work but still relevant to the world she works in.

“We live in a world where it is still significant when someone like me has a position like this,” she said, “but to me, being recognized is an opportunity. I get excited about living in a world where, fast forward a few years, we don’t need to designate anyone’s gender. But at the same time, the designations highlight achievements in a way that allows me and other people like me to help develop the people after us—to provide an inspiration and a role model for those that follow.”

In Her Orbit

Ridings’ fascination with space began in an Amarillo school cafeteria as her sixth-grade class watched the Challenger accident. “That was a defining moment for me,” she said. “Some people look at those types of things and think, ‘Wow, that's scary. I don't want anything to do with it.’ I tend to look at a catastrophic problem and think about what we can do to make that situation better.”

 

On the Horizon: Diane Dailey ’05

Lubbock native Diane Dailey ’05 is one of four new flight directors to oversee operations of the ISS. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and has worked on a variety of projects at NASA since 2006. In addition to improving life support systems, she has supported 10 space shuttle missions and served as the lead flight controller for two commercial resupply services missions for SpaceX.

Dailey has an obvious passion for learning. During her senior year at Texas A&M, she chose to take biochemistry as an elective and loved it. She recalls long hours grappling with information and the “light bulb moments” that came with understanding. She describes her biggest takeaway from her education as “learning how to learn,” both from extracurriculars and diving headfirst into classes.

After spending her childhood dreaming of becoming an astronaut, Dailey knew that she wanted to work in space exploration. She seized every chance she could get to work with NASA while still in school at Texas A&M. Once she started working for the space agency, she eventually realized that her place in making human spaceflight happen would be as a flight director. Dailey will be certified later this year, joining the ranks of just 101 other flight directors in NASA’s history who have been entrusted with this honor.

As the lead flight controller for the first two SpaceX Commercial Crew missions, Dailey’s career has already made marks on the future of human spaceflight. “The thing that I find most fulfilling is knowing that I have this part to play in something that seems so much bigger than just the sum of its parts,” she said. “It was so incredible and humbling to watch that first crewed mission fly. We can do very difficult, complicated things when we come together.”

As a teenager, Ridings chose to attend Texas A&M University because she felt a sense of community that resonated with her belief in the power of a team. She likens wearing a NASA t-shirt to an Aggie ring, a symbol that is instantly recognizable and links its wearer to a storied history and set of values.

“To me, Texas A&M is a lot like the human spaceflight community,” she said. “You have these traditions that hold you together across time and space. You have this depth of history and tradition, and you believe that you’re trying to do something positive in the world. I think that idea permeates Texas A&M and is very analogous to our belief for human spaceflight. Why are we all here working so hard? Because we believe it matters.”

Ridings’ time as a student at Texas A&M prepared her for her career in more ways than in the classroom. While earning her mechanical engineering degree, she was given the opportunity to study abroad in Germany.

“So much of what I do with and for NASA and the International Space Station has to do with culture, language and communication. Texas A&M exposed me to those ideas at a young age, and it has made a huge impact on my success today with NASA and human spaceflight,” she said. “Human spaceflight is a global endeavor, and you need to understand different languages, culture priorities and customs.”

Today, Ridings continues to be involved with the Aggie community and recently participated in a lecture series in the College of Engineering.

Shooting for the Moon, Landing on Mars

NASA’s next big project is the Artemis program, a three-launch process that will culminate in a 2024 return to the moon. Since that first moon landing and big leap for mankind in 1969, a lot has changed. This next lunar landing will put the next man and first woman on the moon, while long-term plans include establishing a more permanent American outpost on the moon. In a word, Ridings describes it as “exciting.” The 2024 lunar landing is meant to serve as a test run for future missions to Mars. The concluding sentence of the summary of NASA’s official Artemis Plan reads: “The sooner we go to the moon, the sooner we send astronauts to Mars.”

As chief flight director, Ridings is heavily involved in manned missions to the moon and future missions to Mars. As far as what these missions represent to her, she sees them as humanity trying to evolve and explore. “The thing that resonates with people is the emotional aspect of exploring and achieving something we’ve not done before,” she said. “It’s combining this technically challenging endeavor with the emotional aspect of the human race constantly trying to better itself.”

When Ridings looks back at the moments that would eventually lead her to the helm of Mission Control, she gives credit to the people who mentored her throughout her education. She recalls a high school physics teacher who made an exception that allowed her to attend a physics club field trip to Johnson Space Center when she was only a freshman. She also remembers the mentorship of Aaron Cohen ’52, a professor and former director of Johnson Space Center who gave her the chance to explore her passion for spaceflight in her senior design project. Cohen was heavily involved with the human spaceflight community and had a significant role in many of the nation’s largest space projects, which include the moon landing and work with the ISS.

Ultimately, becoming a flight director requires extensive training, the ability to make decisions under pressure, heaps of technical knowledge and years of experience, and above all, a natural talent for leadership. Flight directors are the mentors, managers and leaders of extraordinary people who do extraordinary things. It is an enormous task, but one she finds fulfilling.

When you look back, you hope to see that what you did had some real effect and was relevant to the world,” she concluded. “If you're lucky enough to do that in your career, you just can't ask for anything more.”

Contact:

Stephanie Lampe '06

Director of Development, Engineering
College of Engineering
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