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Center for Educational Technologies projects have ended (except Challenger Learning Center) and are no longer funded.

From Challenger Learning Center to Mission Control

Thu Nov 29 2012

By Kathryn Kelly

When she was a child, Jessica Tramaglini dreamt of being a veterinarian. She enjoyed playing with her aunts and uncles’ dogs and thought she’d like to make a career out of working with animals.

But those plans fell by the wayside one day in 1999 when she and her sixth grade classmates from Pittsburgh’s Mellon Middle School took a fieldtrip to the Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University. The trip inspired her to look to the skies for a career, and today she is a flight controller at NASA Johnson Space Center, where she monitors data related to the International Space Station’s power and external thermal systems.

“I was not interested at all in the space program before that science class fieldtrip,” said Tramaglini, a native of Mount Lebanon in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. “But the Challenger Center piqued my interest.”

One of 48 Challenger Learning Centers worldwide, the Wheeling facility opened in 1994 and has since been a mecca for regional middle school students and their teachers, who come to immerse themselves in science by “flying” space missions.

Like the other 30,000 students who participate annually in the Wheeling program either in person or from classrooms across the world through the e-Missions™ distance learning program, Tramaglini and her middle school classmates took on roles as engineers and scientists in mission control during the two-hour Challenger experience, using math and science to help build skills like decision making, teamwork, problem solving, and communication.

Tramaglini recalls working with her class as a team to handle emergencies that came up during their Challenger mission, a scenario that plays out for her on the job today. Now, in mission control at Johnson Space Center, she and a team of controllers monitor International Space Station systems and activities from consoles set up in the Station Flight Control Room. Plenty of training in troubleshooting equips Tramaglini and her colleagues to identify glitches. When they discover something working improperly or not working at all, they issue commands from their consoles and work with space station crewmembers to take corrective action. These actions are as diverse as positioning solar arrays, operating power switches, and changing lightbulbs.

But how does a sixth-grader from Western Pennsylvania progress from handling a mock crisis in the Challenger Learning Center to tackling real emergencies on the International Space Station? For Tramaglini it was a combination of determination, focus, and good grades in science and math.

With her mind set on pursuing a career in the space program after her Challenger experience, Tramaglini spent the following summer at Space Camp in Florida, where she studied the solar system and space history, learned about hydroponics, and participated in mock missions.

“I remember getting to be flight director for one of the missions and how exciting that was,” she recalled. “I had my first taste of that at the Challenger Learning Center and knew I wanted more.”

That combination of Challenger and the Space Camp left an impression on her that continued to blossom.

“After that year and those experiences, I wanted to grow up and work in mission control,” she said. To that end, she focused her studies on math and science courses, opting for the more difficult advanced placement courses during her years at Mount Lebanon High School, while maintaining good grades.

As an undergraduate at Penn State University, Tramaglini earned a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering in 2009, minoring in engineering mechanics and Spanish. She also earned a space systems engineering certificate in a program designed to prepare engineering students for careers in the space industry.

Tramaglini spent her college summers at three NASA field centers, conducting research on lunar soil and space radiation. Upon graduation she landed her dream job at Johnson Space Center mission control, where she’s been since mid-2009.

“Becoming a flight controller was not an easy task,” she said. After studying the systems for which they’re responsible, new controllers work through simulations that include systems failures.

“You know you’re about ready to certify [to become a flight controller] when you’re spending so much time in simulations that you start dreaming about them,” she joked.

At 25 Tramaglini is one of NASA’s youngest flight controllers. She and her colleagues spend one week or weekend each month working eight-hour shifts at the console in mission control. The remainder of their time is spent training new flight controllers and working on documentation related to procedures and space station operations.

In her spare time Tramaglini volunteers at a Challenger Learning Center in Texas to help foster a passion for space science in today’s middle school children.

Where does she want to go from here? Flight director? Astronaut?

“I’m not sure what will come next for me,” she said, adding that she is still just enjoying the experience of being a flight controller. “As a flight controller you develop so many skills, like teamwork, leadership, coordination, and delegation, the ability to stay calm and work through stressful situations. These skills are universally applicable and useful in a variety of fields.”

One thing is abundantly clear: The sky isn't the limit for her.