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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

IMAGE: Debrah Underwood
Debrah Underwood works in the Payload Operations Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Debrah Underwood,
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

"Headmaster" 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.

Underwood, 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.

Her experiment 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.

Underwood’s 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 operating procedures.

Yet another 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.

“Space 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.”

The Marshall 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.

Underwood was 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.

Underwood completed 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.

Joining the 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.

“It was 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.”

Underwood worked 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.

That broad experience led to increased responsibilities, including assignments as branch and division managers, before she was appointed to her current position.

During her career, she has received NASA Group Achievement awards, Sustained Superior Performance awards, and Special Service awards for her work.

Underwood and 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.

 All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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