Underwood works in the Payload Operations Center at NASA’s Marshall
Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. |
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
of astronaut science academy
June 18, 2002
- When looking for a new job, science teacher Debrah Underwood didn't
dream that today she'd be training astronauts to operate cutting-edge
science experiments aboard the International Space Station. Underwood
is Training and Crew Operations Group Lead at the Marshall Center.
The Payload Operations Center manages all science research experiment
operations aboard the International Space Station.
Training and Crew Operations Group Lead at NASA’s Marshall Space
Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., oversees a team of 17 government
employees and 40 contractors, supported by seven trainers at NASA’s
Johnson Space Center in Houston, where Space Station crew training is conducted.
trainers work with Johnson Space Center’s crew trainers, who oversee basic astronaut training and detailed mission and Space
Station training. Her group also works with experiment developers
around the world to write lesson plans, prepare study materials,
conduct training, develop and provide training equipment, and schedule
the science training around an already-busy crew training schedule.
team also trains groups of about 60 controllers who staff control
consoles at Marshall’s Payload Operations Center for science
operations on board the Space Station during four-month missions.
These controllers operate science experiments from the ground and
answer questions the crew may have about payloads. Not only does
her team train people for these highly specialized operations, they
man two of the consoles themselves – the PAYCOM console, responsible
for air-to-ground communications with the Space Station crew, and
the PODF Support console, responsible for making updates to crew
responsibility of her team is to write the operating procedures
for experiments that the crew uses. They also make sure the experiment
developers use standard controls and labeling on their payloads
to make the crews’ job as simple as possible.
station crews are very experienced, but they can’t be experts
in every experiment onboard,” Underwood said. “Their time
on the ground is almost as precious as their time in space. It’s
our job to work around the other demands on their time and deliver
clear, complete, concise training. And when the crews get to space,
the ground team has to know as much or more than they do, anticipate
their questions and be ready with the answers.”
Center was a key leader in the design and development of the International
Space Station program. Today, the Payload Operations Center at Marshall
manages all science research experiment operations on board the
Station. The center is also home for coordinating the science plans
of NASA’s international partners, all science payload deliveries
to the Station and retrieval from the Station, and payload training
and payload safety programs for the Station crew and ground personnel.
born in Oklahoma City and raised in California until she was 12.
Her father, who was in the aerospace industry, moved the family
to Huntsville in 1963. She graduated from Lee High School in 1968,
and went to the University of Alabama in Huntsville for two years.
college at Memphis State University in 1973 with a bachelor’s
degree in education. She taught science for three years in Memphis
schools before she applied for government service. She accepted
a job at the Marshall Center, and in 1976 Underwood returned to
Huntsville with her family. Despite a natural interest in science
— she had more college credits in biology, chemistry physics
and other science courses than in education — she had never
seriously considered the space program as a career choice.
Marshall Center, Underwood found other women who were already climbing
the career ladder in non-traditional engineering, scientific and
management roles. They became her mentors as she began to make a
place for herself in the space program.
Her first jobs
were analyzing satellite data and studies of how science experiments
being planned for NASA’s then-new Space Shuttle would be affected
by space flight. She soon became interested in the details of the
experiments she was analyzing, and Marshall’s role in training
astronauts to operate them. So she asked for a transfer into the
new training organization. By 1980, Underwood was scheduling and
conducting training — and loving every minute of it.
everything I thought it would be,” Underwood said. “I
met the scientists, learned about their experiments and science
objectives. I could see the equipment and learn how to use it. One
of the most exciting things was talking with the astronaut crew
and working with them on a daily basis. From there, my interest
and my career just expanded.”
her way up to lead training manager for the Spacelab 3 science mission
in 1985 aboard the Shuttle. During the flight, she did double duty
as lead payload communicator — the voice of the science operations
center in Huntsville for all communications with the crews in space.
She also became a diver in the Neutral Buoyancy Facility at Marshall,
helping train spacesuited astronauts in the simulated weightlessness
of the 1.3-million-gallon water tank. On later Shuttle missions,
she advanced to become a Payload Operations Director, overseeing
the entire science control room during Spacelab missions.
experience led to increased responsibilities, including assignments
as branch and division managers, before she was appointed to her
career, she has received NASA Group Achievement awards, Sustained
Superior Performance awards, and Special Service awards for her
her husband, Dan, live in Madison, Ala., and have three children,
Nathan, Leah and Rachel; and two grandchildren, Carol Ann and John Morgan Underwood. Her parents, Robert and Loretta Brazil, live in
nearby New Hope. When she’s not immersed in the space program,
Underwood is involved in church and community activities, and enjoys
dancing and gardening.
and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight