For the first time, FAA will field an all women ground crew for upcoming launch

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It takes a veritable village to launch a spacecraft when it comes to commercial space vehicles. The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation grants the licenses during liftoff. FAA crews keep airplanes away, give weather advisories, mapping and many other services. For an upcoming launch of a commercial rocket called STARLINK V1 L9 for the first time the FAA will field an all-woman ground crew, officially the Joint Air Space Operations Group. Air Traffic Manager Jennifer Ross and Space Operations Group Member Jaime McMillon joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to share their stories.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: All right. So first of all, tell us what goes on when a commercial rocket launches. I mean, people think NASA is the only folks that have to do with rockets, but we know the FAA has a big role in it. What happens, Jennifer?

Jennifer Ross: Yes, there’s a huge FAA air traffic team that works with the joint airspace operations group and we really been planning this mission since about mid-June, we build the airspace management plan, communicating with the stakeholders and other FAA facilities regarding that plan, making sure everything’s working as expected. They work with SpaceX who’s launching the rocket and then the 45th space wing during the development of the plan to ensure the customer needs are met. And all the federal range, everything that they need is met also and then, on launch day, that’s when the real time execution of the plan and any tactical adjustments that we need to make get done.

Tom Temin: Got it. Okay. And Jennifer, what are the air traffic managers do then, keep airplanes away from that launch?

Jennifer Ross: Yeah, the air traffic pieces – my specialists in the challenger room are moving all of the commercial traffic, timing it through very meticulous planned out mathematical equations that protect airspace so we can keep our commercial flights away and then also resume those commercial flights when it’s safe to do so.

Tom Temin: Got it. And Jaime, on the Space Operations Group side, tell us about your role in all of this.

Jaime McMillon: Oh, yes. So we support our air traffic counterparts. We do a lot of pre mission planning a lot of analysis for potential debris areas for the missions. And we provide a lot of real time support during launch and re-entry operations.

Tom Temin: All right, and how do you interact with the operator? Where will the STARLINK L9 take off from? And does it involve any other agencies?

Jaime McMillon: So the STARLINK [L]9 mission is expected to launch from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39. And as part of the FAA there is – it’s obviously a very complex process, but we do interact with other agencies depending on the mission. There’s interaction with the Air Force, sometimes with NOAA, and just different agencies depending on the mission.

Tom Temin: And is this one of these full-sized type of rockets and what do we know about what it is it’s taking up there commercially?

Jaime McMillon: This mission will be launching the starlink payloads and this will go up on Falcon nine rocket. So the starlink projects a project that’s going to deliver high speed internet access across the globe through small broadband satellites. And the Falcon nine rocket is actually made up of a couple of stages. There’s the first stage which is basically going to get it off the launch pad, the second stage, which is going to get the payload into orbit, and then the top of the rocket is where all satellites are.

Tom Temin: All right, we’re speaking with Jamie McMillan. She’s a member of the Space Operations Group, and with Jennifer Ross and Air Traffic Manager, both with the FAA. And I guess the premise of what the FAA has put out, one of the things they mentioned is that there is an all-female crew at the ground, a joint airspace operations group. That’s unusual because it’s the first time. What does it take to do this type of work, are you basically STEM-type people?

Jennifer Ross: So I think it really started with Jaime’s group. They were looking around the room and saw that all of these women were participating in this and really got the ball rolling in our direction of how far can we take this to have an all-women crew, even here at our facilities in the challenger room, and even in the field facilities like Jacksonville/Miami centers that will help actually work that traffic through the day. So it really started with Jaime’s group getting the ball rolling. So it was really nice.

Tom Temin: Jaime?

Jaime McMillon: It was really exciting to see how many women could be involved and we’re excited about being part of this and word of mouth just got around. It was just really exciting to see that all the different positions that were available for women to work in commercial space, even just the diversity across the FAA.

Tom Temin: Sure, and how many women are involved in a launch altogether? It sounds like a lot of people.

Jennifer Ross: Yeah, goodness, gosh, I would say at least 25 on just the air traffic side.

Tom Temin: And on the space operation side?

Jaime McMillon: Yeah, there’s quite a few. We have our folks supporting here at headquarters. But we also have positions down at the Cape. We have our safety inspectors, the folks sitting with the operator, so there’s quite a few.

Tom Temin: And by the way, there’s nobody on the rocket itself this time, is there?

Jennifer Ross: Not this time.

Jaime McMillon: Nope.

Tom Temin: Yeah. Well, just to get back to my other question, the background that you have to do this type of work – this is basically science, technology, engineering, math-type of background, Jaime?

Jaime McMillon: Yes, yes. So we have lots of engineers within the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, but just looking across the FAA, I mean, there’s air traffic backgrounds. I don’t really think you have to have one particular education to work in commercial space. And that’s what’s exciting. There’s so many different roles.

Tom Temin: But what’s your background?

Jaime McMillon: I have a mechanical engineering degree. I actually started my career working on Space Shuttle down in Florida.

Tom Temin: Fantastic. And Jennifer, what type of background do you bring to it?

Jennifer Ross: So I started my aviation career as a multi commercial pilot in the Florida area actually and spent a lot of my growing up watching those shuttle launches. So it’s exciting to hear that Jaime was working on them from the other side. Then went into air traffic control in the Jacksonville area. So worked a lot of these space missions. And now I’m here at the command center, coordinating all the efforts that we’re doing throughout the NAS.

Tom Temin: All right and we hear the refrain quite often that the nation needs more girls to get interested in STEM at a young age in school. Would you agree and how can we go about that?

Jennifer Ross: So definitely our team here, the women here participate in several STEM programs here locally, regularly, and then we’re always looking for ways like this interview to even get information out and exposure to the different opportunities that are available in the FAA. Not everybody you know, knows that there’s so many career types and ways to get into the planning and processing of it. And this could be a way to promote that for women in the future.

Tom Temin: Jaime, other thoughts on making sure the feedstock is there at the maybe even elementary and middle school level to make sure that sufficient women come into these fields?

Jaime McMillon: Yeah, I just think the STEM field is great and exciting and I think just exposure and just trying to get involved and do internships and see what’s out there because there’s a lot of different ways to be involved.

Tom Temin: With this launch scheduled for July 8, or you just nervous between now and then?

Jennifer Ross: I’m not nervous at all. There’s so much planning that goes into the front end of it. Everybody who works on it takes so much pride in what they do. I’m excited and can’t wait for – to get here to have this happen.

Tom Temin: Jennifer Ross is an Air Traffic Manager. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jennifer Ross: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: And Jaime McMillon is a Space Operations Group Member. Thank you.

Jaime McMillon: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: And they are both with the Federal Aviation Administration. We’ll post this interview with FederalNewsNetwork.com/Federal Drive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.