Albert Gonzales has an office job, but it isn’t much like the ones you’re probably familiar with: Instead of a cubicle, Gonzales works in NASA’s world-famous flight control room, where he holds conference calls with astronauts and his computer has a high-speed link to outer space.
As a shuttle flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Gonzales might very well be the guy on the other end of the line when an astronaut says, “Mission to ground control.” For most people, getting a job with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration might as well be a mission to Mars, but it seems a job at NASA was in the stars for Gonzales.
Gonzales spent his time at Texas A&M majoring in aerospace engineering but didn’t initially consider a career with the space program. “When I was studying, I can honestly say NASA or space exploration was not something that was in my eyes,” he says. “I was more of a ‘let’s build fighter jets’ kind of guy.”
“With an engineering degree, you can do real engineering work where you’re designing and building something or you can apply your degree and use it for operations, real-time,” Gonzales says. “I chose to do the latter of the two.”
His decision to consider a job with the federal government definitely paid off. As a NASA employee, Gonzales has already had the opportunity to work on more than 10 secondary and three lead teams for space shuttle missions, and he’s only 28 years old.
During manned space flights, Gonzales is one of 12 members of three separate, rotating teams that monitor the activities of the shuttle around the clock. “It’s not always an 8-to-5 situation,” he says. “You might be expected on a mission to come in at midnight, 2 in the morning, and work your eight to nine-hour shift accordingly.”
From his console at the flight control room — the nerve center of mission control — Gonzales follows the ever-changing data that’s sent from the shuttle. He scans and evaluates the information that appears on the many monitors surrounding him. Data points show him detailed aspects of the shuttle’s operation, from its internal and external air pressure to the equipment stability and the humidity of the orbiter.
Of course, being a flight controller isn’t all numbers and graphs. Gonzales has earned the nickname “Tigger” among his coworkers, because he’s “always bouncing off walls and very upbeat.” But this tiger isn’t ferocious. He gets along well with the other flight controllers and enjoys working as part of a group. “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” Gonzales says. “I know that’s a little cliche or a little pun.but everyone will have to eventually work with somebody. You can’t do it all on your own.”
While his responsibilities are astronomical, Gonzales is humble about the work he does. “It’s a job,” he says simply. “It just happens to be that we work here with human space flight.”