Splendor through the skies

Oct 28, 2003

'89 grad helps us shoot for the horizon?

'89 grad helps us shoot for the horizon?

"God of our fathers, whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies
Our grateful songs before Thy throne arise."
-- Daniel Roberts and George William Warren

President George W. Bush was in the crowd of 10,000 earlier this year in Houston when the country mourned the NASA astronauts lost during the tragic explosion of the Columbia. The memorial service was at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC).

Beth (Bransky) Fischer '89 was among the mourners. As the deputy director of Center Operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center, she had a hand in planning the national tribute to her seven lost colleagues. The ceremony helped Fischer remember her former colleague and friend Col. Rick Husband, commander of the space shuttle.

That February day is one of the few low points in a career that has launched this valedictorian from Huron, Ohio, into a celestial job orbit. "To see how our nation responds to a national tragedy is heart-warming," Fischer said from her office at the Johnson Space Center. "To see pieces of a vehicle you worked on laying around like a big puzzle is heart-wrenching," she added.

Fischer has been away from her alma mater, GMI Engineering and Management Institute, less than 15 years. In that time, she's converted her co-op experiences at GM's Fisher Guide to working on three of NASA's biggest projects - the International Space Station, upgrading the aging Johnson Space Center, and payloads that launch on NASA's Space Shuttles, including Columbia.

Looking back ...

Fischer purposely left snow country in 1990 and headed south, ending up at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. She began as a launch site support manager and manifest analysis manager. In her first job out of college, she was responsible for the processing of payloads from arrival at KSC throughout launch.

A chance to job shadow the director of payload management and operations helped her broaden problem solving, analysis and people skills. "If you want to grow as a manager or leader," she said, "you've got to get out of your comfort zone. The more you move around, the more experience you will have and the better able to understand."

By the mid-1990s, she moved on to Houston's JSC to join the International Space Station (ISS) effort. The ISS is the largest human facility in space, orbits 240 miles above the Earth, and is a working laboratory to teach the essentials of long-term living in space.

Fischer noted that the move from GM to NASA wasn't as big a step as it might sound like. "When you think about," Fischer said, "the International Space Station is just a huge vehicle. Everything on a payload or space craft is tied to reliability, safety, systems integration, ergonomics, exposure to the elements - it's similar to assembling a car. My job at NASA was to find out if everybody was talking from the same page."

From technical lead engineer on the engineering planning team, she moved through the ranks to launch package engineer for ISS flights 2a and 2a.1. While working these flights, she got to know Col. Rick Husband who was the pilot on flight 2a.1. She managed and integrated test requirements, and verified activities and schedules for the first U.S. launch of the ISS elements, Node-1, and the pressurized mating adapters that help bring the pieces together in space. She also worked on the second U.S. launch to the ISS, which was a logistics and outfitting mission. "Just getting the space station built was quite a success story," she said. "It involved a diverse team of engineers at many sites."

In August 1999, it was on to JSC's Center Operations Facilities Engineering Division where she was promoted to deputy director less than two years later. She is now part of the NASA team challenged to maintain and repair the infrastructure at the space center where the buildings are 1960s vintage - issues include everything from leaky windows to foundation problems to failing air conditioning equipment .

"This is a completely new ball game for me," she said. "NASA has put knowledgeable engineers into positions to be smart buyers as they rebuild the space center. Now I worry about roads and commodes," she added, laughing. "I certainly have a greater appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes."

Written by Patricia Mroczek
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