A NASA trailblazer finds herself on a new trajectory

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Holly Ridings, the first female chief of NASA’s flight directors, will now lead the agency’s Gateway program and international partnership to establish humanity’s first space station around the moon. In this new role, Ridings will serve as deputy program manager. She’ll lead teams to build and launch NASA’s foundational infrastructure in deep space. Federal News Network’s Eric White on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Ridings about what that entails.

Interview transcript:

Holly Ridings: Gateway program, part of the overall Artemis enterprise, super exciting. Small, human-tended space station around the moon. And this is fun to say; we’re building a space station around the moon. And it’s going to be a platform for the crew members for sustaining time on orbit so that when the Orion vehicle, or potentially other vehicles come to Gateway, the crew members can stay on board and participate in science. And from that platform, other crew members can head down to the surface of the moon. And so it’s a science platform, it’s a you know, crew capability, and it’ll give us an opportunity to figure out how to live and work in  deeper space. So cislunar space around the moon, so that we can then head on to Mars, kind of our toehold or beachhead. Whichever word you want to want to use. And so Gateway is a pretty exciting piece of the Artemis enterprise. One other thing that’s really, really important is it’s an international space station. So a lot of international collaboration going into and ownership going into the different elements that make up the Gateway itself. It’s got different pieces that come together, to make the space station in its entirety. And so for our international partners, commercial providers there’s a lot of skin in the game,  from the entire world.

Eric White: Other than the obvious one, which is that it’s farther away, what are some of the different challenges of stationing humans in cislunar space as compared to the current ISS, which is just right outside the Earth, right next door.

Holly Ridings: Had you started with the other than obvious one that was farther away, but that I mean, that is one of the most challenging pieces, right? So basics, like the environment is different. When you consider radiation, when you consider, the orbit itself, and how you are positioned with respect to the sun, and therefore, the power you can generate, right? There’s a lot of challenges from an emergency standpoint. Back to, you are farther away, because right now, from the International Space Station, you can actually get home pretty quickly. But from Gateway,  it takes a long time, and especially,  much longer and especially if you’re a crew member down on the surface, you’ve got to  head all the way home. And so we do spend a lot of time considering those scenarios, and those differences. Technically, we have not flown a space station in this orbit that is around the moon. If you look at it, it kind of comes close to the surface of the moon, and then it goes around, it gets farther away from the moon. And so just even the time it takes to make an orbit, the distance from the surface at different points in the orbit is very different from the way the International Space Station flies today. So all of those pieces kind of change the way you make decisions and the way you design systems. And the way you have the crew members interact with those systems as part of the mission,

Eric White: You’re focusing on the lunar aspect of things. You know, it’s been awhile since we’ve been to the moon, what are you personally, and what is NASA most excited about getting back to the moon.  I can only think of how amazing it would be to have high definition on the moon. That’s just me. I’m curious and of what you think.

Holly Ridings: So, think about it for a minute from  the human, as in as in the humans on Earth aspect.  So when, when I was coming up, Challenger happened. And so I was a student when Challenger happened.  That was kind of my inspiration for getting into human spaceflight, but there’s a problem, let’s go fix that. I don’t want that to happen again. But if you consider this generation, whether that’s us or people younger.  My son is 10. To have a space station around the moon and to get down to the surface of the moon and to talk about going to Mars, giving every human on the earth, that event as inspiration for science, for technology, for communication. I mean, you mentioned video, think about how it’s going to change the way we perceive ourselves and what we’re capable of doing to go outside and just to look up at the moon and know there’s a small space station, and sometimes people doubt, on the surface.  Certainly I can tell you lots of technical things that I’m really excited about. We’re getting new thrusters, aand the power and propel is an element of Gateway. We’re collaborating with our international partners. We’re figuring out how t o spiral the first elements of Gateway out to its position around the moon. All those are amazing technical things I’m excited about. But what I’m most excited about is being responsible for putting something in orbit around the moon that every human on Earth can go outside and look up and know it’s there.

Eric White: You talked a little bit about how you got started. You’ve been doing this a while now, what made you want to take this next leap into working in NASA, you’re always looking for something new, I guess. But what part about this project really stuck out to you and made you want to kind of,  jump ship, so to speak?

Holly Ridings: I don’t think about it as jumping ship. And it’s interesting, you say that, right. So I have been doing Human Spaceflight Operations in the flying spaceships side, the mission control for the last 20 years. And it is amazing. I absolutely loved everything about it, but at some point, you’re really just trying to maximize your ability to lead. Your ability to help, right? And so, thinking about that I could continue to do more of what I’ve done, or more of what’s fun and amazing, or I could go and try to learn, and try to learn the part of the business that is the building spaceships side and getting it all integrated, and getting it to the launchpad and getting it up on orbit, which is extremely difficult. Artemis is a big enterprise of a lot of different spacecraft. Rockets, spaceships, space stations, and it’s put together by people all over the world. Now, that’s done on purpose. Because, again it’s a worldwide human endeavor, but at the same time, it is challenging, right. And so to give myself that challenge, to go and learn the Gateway program itself, the people that make up the program, our international partners are absolutely amazing. We’re all here for the same goal to get this done. And so, to have an opportunity to join that team and learn a different part of the business that then goes with  the first part of the business that I learned, which is operations, and hopefully,  that’ll make a difference going forward in terms of what I can do for NASA and for human spaceflight. It’s a little bit of a long answer, but  it is really just just trying to do my best to help. I mean, I believe  in human spaceflight, and Gateway and Artemis were just an opportunity to  make a difference and join an amazing team.

Eric White: Yeah, I do have to pick your brain about one of your previous roles. As a flight director, you know, coming from NASA Space Camp myself, I was a flight director, and the job was quite challenging. And I just want to know what it’s like to kind of hold the whole mission in your hands  when you’re dealing with another person who is up in space, or multi-billion dollars of launch equipment and things like that. Obviously, there’s pressure and everything, but  just going through your mindset, while you’re in mission mode.

Holly Ridings: We have a kind of a mantra. And it’s called “plan train fly”. So you do a lot of planning, right? You asked me earlier about sort of the distance and out from low earth orbit, where the International Space Station is to, around the moon, where Gateway will be,  there’s a lot of planning that goes in. You sit around and think about things that could go wrong,  talk about them with your team and try to prepare, right? And then you train. So we do simulations, we practice,  we meet all the people involved in the mission. So we have good relationships, so that you can make decisions under pressure, and  who you’re talking to you and how they think. And then you go fly, right? And so really, when you’re executing the mission, and something doesn’t go right, you have that planning and that training to fall back on. You have your team that you’ve built a relationship with, and really, you have all of the experts who have built those spaceships. So, kind of tying it back to my current role,  you have the programs, the Gateway program, the Orion Program,  and all of the engineers worldwide that support and pour into getting those things done correctly and safely. And you have their support as well when you need information from them in order to make to make good decisions. The way we try to build spaceships is each system can do a certain amount of things, right. So for example, a pump can run at a certain speed. And so you try to make sure that when you go fly and you operate, you stay within that speed because you know it’s gonna work. And then if something happens, and you need to use it a little differently, when you get together with a team that  built the spaceship and the team that’s flying the spaceship and you try to make that all one team and so one of my goals coming over to another part of human spaceflight was really to be able to bridge that and put those those two pieces together.

Tom Temin: Holly Ridings, deputy program manager for NASA’s Gateway program. Speaking with Federal News Network’s Eric White.

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