NASA flight director and Secaucus native’s decade-long journey to dream job

Ronak Dave was inspired to become a flight director after the first man to hold the position, Christopher Kraft

The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) has selected seven new additions to the team of flight directors to oversee operations of the International Space Station (ISS), commercial crew, and Artemis missions to the Moon. Included in the seven inductees in the class of 2022 is Ronak Dave, a Secaucus native.

In an interview with the Hudson Reporter, Dave described his journey at NASA to his new position. He said he was born in New York City, but spent most of his life in Secaucus.  

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Growing up in the small ex-urb at the border of Hudson County and Bergen County, Dave longed to be involved with space missions. While at Secaucus High School, he discovered the story of what would become his role model.

“Working in spaceflight and for NASA was definitely something I’ve always wanted to do,” Dave said. “I didn’t know exactly what that would be growing up. But while I was in high school, I stumbled on a book called ‘Flight: My Life in Mission Control,’ which was written by Christopher Kraft.” 

Dave was inspired by Kraft, who was the first flight director at NASA ever and played a defining role in the history of space flight. 

“He was the first flight director and the person who really set up human spaceflight operations how we do it today, and obviously through the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s and through all those formative missions,” Dave said. “That definitely sent me down the path of wanting to work here at the Johnson Space Center in human spaceflight operations.” 

Pursuing a dream at Purdue

Following high school, Dave continued to pursue his passion for space, which entailed becoming a flight director for NASA. After attending Purdue University, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. 

While studying at Purdue, Dave got his start working toward becoming a flight director. He interned with NASA to help further achieve his goal. 

“In school, I had the opportunity to do the Pathways Intern Program, which is a rotational internship program with NASA and many other federal agencies where you rotate one semester working at NASA, then go back to school for a semester,” Dave said. “It allows you to get some real time experience doing the job, doing different things, rotating around the center, between different centers, and learning about how we do work here at NASA.” 

Following the internship, interns are given the opportunity to be converted to full-time employees. That was the path Dave followed, and he recommends the same to others seeking to work at NASA as well. 

“I recommend this to folks who are passionate and interested about working in this field to look at the programs and the Pathways Intern Program,” Dave said, pointing those interested to apply at intern.nasa.gov. “That’s definitely a message I’d like to get out for folks who are interested or curious about working in position like I do.” 

Hired full-time after successful internship

Before becoming a full-time employee, Dave hit the ground running to learn as much as he could at NASA as an intern.

“I knew I wanted to work in operations, so my goal was really to develop as much understanding of the operational world I could,” Dave said. “So I moved from group to group, working at different subsystems, different parts of the spaceship and the experts in those parts. I was working with them to understand how they operate and what there motivations are.” 

As part of his journey at the agency, Dave also worked a lot with engineering. 

“I spent some time on the engineering side of the Johnson Space Center to see what role they play in our enterprise of exploration,” Dave said. “That’s how they got me to the point where I was hired as a full-time employee.” 

Once he officially became a full-time employee, Dave began working with the ISS Motion Control Systems Group as an attitude determination and control officer. In that role, he logged more than 1,000 hours in mission control and supported a SpaceX commercial resupply mission to station for NASA. 

“I started on the International Space Station working as an attitude determination and control officer,” Dave said. “What we are part is guidance and navigation, basically making sure that the spacecraft is pointed in the right direction we need it to be, and flying around there the way we want it to be.” 

Dave said he spent much of his time there getting certified to fly ISS. And he said he actually flew it for a few years too.

Dave works at the shuttle flight control room (WFCR) as part of the Artemis 1 Wet Dress Rehearsal. Photo by Josh Valcarcel for NASA.

From Motion Control Systems Group, to Propulsion Systems Group

After that, he moved on to work the Propulsion Systems Group, which is a different subsystem of the vehicles that NASA flies. 

“There we were responsible for all types of rocket engines, from the biggest to the smallest, and how they were operated, as well as the rocket fuel used to operate them,” Dave said. “There I worked on a few different diesels.” 

The first thing he worked on was the development and operations of the Boeing Starliner, part of the commercial crew program to help launch astronauts from the U.S. to the International Space Station. 

“With that vehicle, we just flew and docked the first un-crewed test flight to the International Space Station and returned it home safely a few months ago,” Dave said. “The next test flight will actually be bringing U.S. astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station.” 

Two bigger vehicles Dave worked on also included the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft.  

“That set of vehicles is set to launch on its first test flight by the end of the year here,” Dave said. “That is the vehicle that will be bringing our astronauts back to the moon. The first test flight will be uncrewed, and then the second test flight will be taking a crew around the moon. Then the third test flight of that series will be taking the first female and first person of color astronauts to the surface of the moon.” 

Climbing up the ladder, all the way to space

Now, as Dave moves up the ladder again, this time to become a flight director, things have come full circle from reading Kraft’s book as a child. “It’s a bit surreal,” Dave said. “It’s an awesome responsibility that I don’t think anyone in this office, nor do I, take lightly. It’s an incredible opportunity to help lead these teams on the missions I’ve talked about and hopefully get us back to the surface of the moon. And to do that sustainably here soon, and one day on to Mars.” 

Before Dave can hit the ground running as flight director, he must complete key training which he is undergoing now. The comprehensive training program includes operational leadership and risk management, as well as the technical aspects of flight control and spacecraft systems.

“We are in the training process right now,” Dave said. “We’ll go through a year or so of technical training going through different systems of the spacecraft and the rules. We have to manage those systems. Then we’ll do some on-the-job training as well with mentors working in the Mission Control Center prior to becoming certified to go operate the spacecraft and work with the team as the flight director in the ISS Mission Control room.” 

As a flight director, Dave’s duties entail guiding the mission, whatever that may be. He will lead human spaceflight missions from the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston

“At the core of it, a flight director is the real science decision maker and leader of the time to ensure that we keep our astronauts safe and that we are executing the mission. That is at the tip of the spear. Then we help support the team and lead them in developing all the products, the rules, the procedures, the plan, the mission objectives, to get to that point to go do some mission.” 

Advice for those following in his footsteps

Speaking to those seeking to one day be in the same position as Dave, he advised to take a similar route as he did. 

“If you are interested in working at NASA and doing spaceflight or working in space, focus on STEM classes and get into a STEM major in college. The passion really comes through when you talk to people and have conversations about wanting to work here and in other pieces of space exploration. Make connections. If you’re in college, go talk to the speaker that has come in. Talk about spaceflight or whatever you are interested in. Be open with talking with people about what you’re interested in, what you’re doing and be passionate. That passion will come through and get you where you need to or want to go.” 

Dave said that now is an exciting time to get involved in space. 

“We’re really at a junction where that excitement is just going to go up and off,” Dave said. “We’ve had a human presence at the Internation Space Station for over 20 years. We’re doing science every day, working on discovering things that you really can’t do on Earth because of gravity. That’s something the astronauts are working on right now as we speak. In addition to that, we’re really getting started on bringing astronauts back to the moon and to do that sustainably, so that we can learn to live farther away from Earth like we’ve learned to live in the lower orbit on the space station. Hopefully, we can use those platforms to develop the technology and the skills we need to bring people to Mars.” 

According to Dave, NASA is looking for more people for this endeavor, and he encouraged those interested to study so they can potentially get involved with the agency as it looks to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. 

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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