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Whether it’s in the scene of a thrilling science fiction film or in the background of a live TV broadcast, the launch control centers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the United Space Force’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Brevard County play an iconic role prior to liftoff for every U.S. rocket launch from the Space Coast.

Tim Dunn, launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program, is among the hundreds of engineers, analysts and technicians sitting at the launch control center’s quintessential computer consoles and speaking into headsets as they watch footage of the mission on big screens overhead.

Dunn has enjoyed an aerospace industry career spanning almost four decades, including more than 20 years at NASA. In that time, he has witnessed 118 rocket launches, including 64 with the LSP team. As launch director, he leads the team firing rockets for NASA’s science and robotic missions, including communications satellites, Mars exploration and asteroid studies.

Inspired to pursue this career field from a young age, Dunn earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Alabama and a master’s degree in space operations from the U.S Air Force Institute of Technology. Following his Air Force assignment in Colorado, Dunn was shipped to Cape Canaveral to be part of the USAF Titan IV launch team, where he later worked for Boeing before joining NASA in 2000.

Read more about Dunn’s career journey, including a behind-the-scenes look at the Launch Services Program:

What inspired you to pursue this career?

I wanted to have a job related to space from a very young age. I grew up in north Alabama in the days of the Apollo program. My dad and a lot of my friends’ parents worked at Redstone Arsenal or Marshall Space Flight Center, where Wernher von Braun and his team designed and built the Saturn V rocket. A lot of engine testing was done there, so I grew up knowing that our nation was going to the moon and thought rockets were really cool. Plus, around the time I was in elementary school, the original Star Trek series was syndicated on TV and I was watching that show every afternoon.

What does it take to launch a rocket from Florida’s Space Coast?

On the day of a launch, we work alongside the commercial provider’s launch team – companies such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman – to ensure a successful launch. This includes leading the team through a countdown and verifying launch milestones like ensuring the rocket is properly fueled and final launch vehicle checkouts are completed. Although launch day can seem chaotic at times when there are problems and so many activities are occurring simultaneously, we have an anomaly resolution process that allows us to work through problems quickly. We either solve the problem and press on with the launch, or we scrub that day’s launch attempt and come back the following day at the next launch opportunity.

About 60 days before a launch, we’re in “launch campaign mode.” This means the rocket and spacecraft hardware are already on-site, so we initiate pre-launch reviews, monitor external situations that may arise on the eastern launch range, perform flight readiness reviews and conduct mission dress rehearsals. In these dress rehearsals, we bring the team together and throw a series of problems at them to determine how they react under stress – all of which is a part of exercising our launch team and improving the anomaly resolution process.

Further out, we are making sure our launches are included in the master range schedule. NASA is not the only one who wants to launch from the eastern range in Brevard County, so we must operate in concert with other customers on the range while avoiding launch date conflicts. We also continually work hand-in-hand with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to resupply the International Space Station and launch astronauts from pads at the eastern range.

How have you seen the technology evolve over the course of your time working with this team?

Originally, most of the data that came from the rocket was printed onto rolls of paper called strip charts. Little pins would trace out thousands of readings about different aspects of the rocket, such as temperature or the positioning of the engine, and the team would interpret the data from the rolls of paper. Now, we have virtual strip charts on computer screens called WinPlot that allows us to view, back up the data computation, overlay with previous launch data, take screenshots of data from specific time periods and more.

Additionally, transmitting large quantities of data over a great distance has really evolved thanks to the advancement of computer technology and fiber optics. Part of our launch team might be deployed in California, but they can look at the same real-time data we’re looking at in Florida or even have them cover the launch. This really helped during the pandemic, when we were only allowed to send two-thirds of our team to the California coast for a launch. Our other team members in Florida could monitor the same data seen in California and execute the launch successfully.

What are some of the most memorable launches you’ve experienced?

It was about three years into my time with the NASA Launch Services Program when we launched the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars. There was a lot of excitement around these two missions and the team really came together to solve several pre-launch issues to get the two rockets ready. The rovers turned out to be a huge success. They were designed for only 90 days of operation on Mars, but they each relayed usable data for many years, with Opportunity lasting nearly 15 years.

We’ve also completed two missions to the sun: Parker Solar Probe in 2018 on the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy and, in early 2020, the Solar Orbiter international partnership mission. Solar Orbiter has provided data back from the poles of the sun that we’ve never seen before.

Are there any fun facts about the management of a rocket launch that most people wouldn’t know?

Movies portray raucous celebrations immediately following a launch, but the Launch Services Program team doesn’t celebrate until our job is done, when the spacecraft achieves separation from the rocket – a process that can take as little as 45 minutes or up to several hours. Then at that point, the celebration begins with huge sighs of relief, handshakes, hugs and high-fives around the control room.

There is an unwritten rule that we don’t wear any shade of red on launch day. Because red means “stop” and green means “go,” you’ll find that green is a popular launch day color. But any color other than red is acceptable for launch day attire.

What are you up to when you aren’t launching rockets?

I absolutely love the Space Coast. I moved here in 1993 and have no thoughts of ever leaving. Professionally, rockets brought me here, but outside of work, there’s the incredible climate, proximity to the beaches and many golf courses where you’ll find me on my days off. Because the Florida weather allows me to be outdoors year-round, I also enjoy biking, hiking or running by the Indian River.

Images courtesy of NASA.

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