Former NASA Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Josh Byerly has talked openly about the public and private process of providing live, continuous, and accurate commentary of high-pressure moments in the world of space flight, bridging the gap between the technicalities of NASA operations and missions by translating them to the legions of followers around the world.
What to say:
The tensest moments had passed. The countdown, against seemingly all odds, was nearly over. Space Shuttle Discovery was about to make history.
On 24 February 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with just 2-seconds of launch window and only 1-second of hold time remaining for the day, Discovery’s Solid Rocket Boosters ignited, and the 133rd flight of the Space Shuttle Program began to rise into the cloudless sky over Central Florida.
Sitting 850 miles away in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, NASA Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Josh Byerly found himself in a position that no other PAO for NASA had ever faced: What to say to the world on behalf of NASA as Discovery began the emotion-filled first retirement flight of the most-iconic space vehicle in the world.
In an exclusive interview with NASASpaceflight.com, Byerly opened up about that day in Mission Control.
“As odd as it sounds, I think everyone is attached to one of the orbiters more than others,” Byerly said. “Mine was always Endeavour, since that was the first launch I ever saw, and it was the first shuttle I ever got to go inside.
“But when I was assigned Discovery’s last mission, it struck me that here was this Shuttle that was never really meant to be as historic as she became. But Discovery was called upon to fly some of the highest profile missions, including both return to flights, when both of her older sisters were destroyed.
“There was something incredibly poetic and noble about that, and it was really emotional when you think about it. Yes, it’s just a machine, but I don’t care what anyone says, you take one look at those shuttles and they have personalities.”
And so, for Byerly, calling the ascent of the final flight of the most-flown Orbiter in the NASA Shuttle fleet was a knowing chance to speak for history.
The final launch of Discovery – as with all other aspects of live Shuttle flight commentary – required Byerly to provide live, unscripted explanations of mission progress to NASA TV audiences around the globe.
As Discovery leapt from the Earth amidst a launch commentary sendoff to the orbiter and crew from KSC PAO Mike Curie, control of the mission shifted to the MCC at JSC. It was Byerly’s turn to encapsulate Discovery’s last roar to space.
“Discovery now making one last reach for the stars,” Byerly said into his headset microphone from the MCC as the shuttle streaked skyward toward a precise target in space and time.
For as easily as that now-iconic line flowed from him on launch day, Byerly admits that he was actually scared.
“Doing that launch was the only time in my life that I have been legitimately and undeniably scared on the air. It was a lot of pressure, and I was just trying not to mess it up. Thank god I didn’t, because it’s on a loop in the Smithsonian now, and luckily I didn’t embarrass myself.”
Moreover, Byerly talked about how that one line was the only one he scripted for the launch commentary.
“For the ascent, I sat down a few weeks before the launch and somehow came up with this launch line of ‘making one last reach for the stars.’ And the rest of the ascent was really just me concentrating on calling the numbers and the milestones, but also throwing in little factoids that showed the sheer power of that spacecraft.”
As Discovery continued her climb, she passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressure, and her three main engines began throttling up to full-power for the ascent. As the CAPCOM in Mission Control called to the crew, “Discovery, go at throttle up,” it was a moment that — more so than for everyone else who always held their breath at this moment in any ascent — played strongly for Byerly.
Twenty-five years earlier, this is was the final call made to the Shuttle Challenger and her 7-member crew.
In the year before that tragic morning, Byerly made his first visit to JSC as a child.
“We went and took a tour of the Johnson Space Center,” Byerly said in the interview. “I was maybe nine years old, but back then you could walk around much more freely than you can now.
“There was one tour guide with us, and she took us over to what is now called the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, and there was a crew in there training. Some of the crew came over and said hello to me.
“So here stood these astronauts in the old blue jumpsuits, and it turned out to be the crew of Challenger.”
Months later, Byerly was at home on 28 January 1986.
“Meeting the crew and actually being home from school the day of the accident is what made a mark on me, just like it did for most people my age,” Byerly said.
More than 20 years after his first visit to JSC, Byerly, who had worked as a news reporter and public relations specialist, returned there to be sworn in as a PAO.
“That experience taught me that you never know what kind of impact you might have on a kid, which is probably why I believe in NASA’s involvement in schools as much as I do,” Byerly said.
Twenty-five years after Challenger’s loss, Discovery continued skyward. The SRBs completed their task and separated from the External Tank. Discovery soared onward under the power of her main engines, becoming a fiery pinpoint in the sky before finally slipping into Earth orbit.
Discovery and her crew docked with the ISS two days later, delivering the PMM and the ELC. The mission also featured two successful spacewalks.
As Byerly related in his interview, “I was in the Mission Control Center for two weeks straight and on the air for nine hours non-stop each day.”
“We had factoids and data points written down, and during an ascent you have time hacks written down. But other than that, it’s all ad lib.”
JSC’s commentators kept reams of information on hand to help explain each mission.
“Rob Navias is known for basically bringing every piece of paper that has ever been printed at NASA onto the console with him, and the man has more facts and figures in his head than anyone I have ever met,” Byerly said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”
“What I did during shuttle flights was to take a big binder in there that had each flight day as a tab, which had all of the stuff that was happening that day. So on spacewalk days, it had the spacewalk plan and what the steps were, and on cargo transfer days, it had the cargo list and the different weights.”
According to Byerly, NASA PAOs stayed closely engrained with the other personnel of Mission Control.
“During the shuttle missions, you became extremely tight because you worked as a team non-stop during the entire mission,” Byerly said.
“In the shuttle room, we sat right behind and to the left of the Flight Director, so we were right there. In the station room and moving forward from now on, the commentator is up on the front row, so it’s a little bit of a different dynamic.”
For STS-133, Byerly spent the 10 days of Discovery’s docked operations at the ISS on console calling the events as they happened.
On March 7, the 12th day of the flight, Discovery and her crew departed the ISS for the final time and prepared for a landing scheduled two days later.
Byerly, too, prepared. Again, like no other PAO had had to prepare for before, Byerly would provide NASA’s official commentary to the end of Discovery’s 26 years of unparalleled operational service.
On the 14th flight day of STS-133, Discovery returned to the Florida skies. Commander Lindsey and pilot Boe would conclude the mission, as well as Discovery’s service, with a landing at KSC.
The shuttle appeared on KSC’s long-range tracking cameras. Two sonic booms washed over the space center as Discovery left supersonic travel for the final time.
Once again on duty at the MCC, Byerly gave a voice to the orbiter’s last glide. “This is space shuttle Discovery’s final minute of flight,” Byerly said on NASA TV.
“Space shuttle Discovery now on final approach to the Kennedy Space Center. Just more than 30 seconds to go.”
Boe deployed Discovery’s landing gear. The runway rushed beneath the orbiter. The shuttle’s main landing gear tires grazed the concrete, leaving a flurry of smoke in their wake.
Lindsey pitched the orbiter’s nose downward as Boe prompted drag chute deployment from beneath the orbiter’s tail fin.
Reflecting on the landing years later, Byerly said planning a line for Discovery’s final return was “tougher” than for the orbiter’s final launch.
“I honestly didn’t know what to say that would do it justice while at the same time not going over the top with it,” Byerly said.
But it was Byerly who came up with that line while sitting with Rob Navias before the mission launched. “Rob and I were sitting in my office before the mission, and he and I were talking about it. I thought, ‘What if I just said goodbye to it?’”
As Discovery’s nose gear met the runway and the orbiter began rolling to retirement, Byerly’s voice broke across the live views of Discovery’s landing. “Nose gear touchdown and the end of a historic journey,” Byerly said in his commentary. “And to the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say farewell, Discovery.”
With that one sentence, Byerly encapsulated a highly emotional and triumphant moment.
Beyond the triumphs:
Although Byerly was interested in NASA since childhood, his work at JSC inspired him to take his NASA knowledge to new heights.
Byerly joined the NASA PAO office at the Johnson Space Center in 2007.
“I was lucky enough to come to NASA and work there during an incredible transition time,” Byerly said. “I was there for the end of the shuttle and worked those 17 final missions.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the level of detail I would have to learn walking in the door,” Byerly said in his interview with NASASpaceFlight.com.
“It’s a tough job, because to do it well you have to be able to dive deep into the subject matter, whether it is the system components on the shuttle or the station, or the science on board, and then you have to understand it and bring it back to a higher level so the media and the public can understand it.”
As a NASA PAO, Byerly was tasked with conducting and moderating news conferences and filming video segments for NASA TV and online audiences in addition to his mission commentary duties.
But NASA PAOs also must be ready at a moment’s notice to handle difficult situations.
While NASA PAOs are the voice for NASA’s triumphs, they also must communicate with the public during the agency’s ordeals. PAOs work to prepare for the most likely mission issues, Byerly said, but the wholly unexpected can still strike.
“Some things you can’t prepare for,” Byerly said. “When something like that happens, you just have to take a breath, relax, listen to the voice loops in the MCC, figure out what’s going on and try to explain what you know. And you rely on your colleagues in the newsroom and the production team to help back you up.”
Occasionally, as occurred in losses of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia, NASA PAOs must process and convey the loss of astronaut crews. Even the loss of an unmanned mission, such as the launch failure of the Orb-3 mission to the ISS, forces the agency to react instantaneously to a highly-public mishap.
In those instances, NASA has precise plans in place, according to Byerly.
“There are very in-depth contingency plans for different scenarios,” Byerly said. “The one that we had for shuttle was based on lessons learned during Challenger and Columbia, and there’s various versions of that for ISS and the other launches we do. And we developed a version of it for the SpaceX and Orbital flights.
“It’s very prescriptive and specific, even down to what camera angles are shown and what happens on NASA TV.”
But above all, NASA PAOs prioritize transparency during contingencies, Byerly said.
“As a commentator, you are trained to state the facts and to say what you know. You never speculate, and you try to provide information as quickly and as clearly as you can. For better or worse, NASA exists in a fishbowl, which private and public companies don’t have to do.
“But everything we did was in the open and was as transparent as it could be, and I can honestly say that there was a commitment inside the agency to that philosophy,” Byerly said.
With the United States’ collaboration and eventual reliance on Russia for crewed transport to the ISS, Byerly and fellow PAO Rob Navias alternated treks to snowy Kazakhstan to cover launches and landings of Russia’s Soyuz crew vehicle.
“A Soyuz launch is a much more involved trip than a landing,” Byerly said. “There’s a lot more people, and a lot more moving parts. Landing is actually a tiny team and a little more straightforward.”
The trip from Houston to Kazakhstan took several flights, according to Byerly.
“You fly on the NASA plane from Houston to Maine, and from Maine to Scotland, and from Scotland to either Karaganda (capital of the Karagandy Province in Kazakhstan) or Kostanay (administrative center of Kostanay Province, Kazakhstan),” Byerly said.
Covering landings, according to Byerly, required his team to undergo days of preparation once they arrived in Kazakhstan.
“You’re there for a couple of days getting ready for the landing and doing some meetings and safety briefings about not going near the bottom of the Soyuz and watching out for the antenna. Then you wake up really early on landing day, drive to the airport, board the helicopters, and then take off one by one.
“You fly for about two hours on the helicopter, and you’re honestly out of the loop on what’s actually happening with the landing. There’s no cell phone coverage or satellite phone coverage, so you have to rely on the Russian pilots to tell you when the chutes are deployed.
“Once the spacecraft actually lands, the helos touch down, and you make your way to the capsule, make sure the crew is doing fine, say hello and then try to find a quiet and non-windy spot to call in on a satellite phone to do a NASA TV interview.
“Once that is done, you fly back to the main city, the Kazakhs have a welcome ceremony, we tape a quick interview for NASA TV with the crewmembers, and then you hop on the NASA plane and begin about a 20 hour flight back home to Houston,” Byerly said.
While Byerly recalled most of the Soyuz flights he covered as a “blur,” he found U.S. astronaut and fellow Texas A&M alum Mike Fossum’s November 2011 landing particularly memorable.
“We took off from the airfield in the pre-dawn hours and it was bitterly cold,” Byerly said. “The sun was coming up as the spacecraft was coming back in. I looked out the window of the helo and saw this V-shaped plasma trail that was bright pink and purple. Fifteen minutes later, we were hovering over the landing site looking at a spacecraft that we had just seen re-enter.
“It’s something I’ll never forget.”
After joining NASA in 2007, Byerly experienced first-hand the agency’s drive to embrace new media, such as YouTube, while still maintaining its traditional news outlets, such as NASA TV.
As media became more widespread, more affordable, and more interactive, NASA courted new audiences in new ways.
One project that was special to Byerly is the “We Are The Explorers” video, which was released in 2012. Byerly and producer John Streeter conceived, wrote and edited the video. And they called in a favor from a special friend of Byerly’s to provide the voiceover.
“John and I had talked about doing this video that tapped into the emotion of NASA and the power of what we do. We just wanted to tie everything back to the fact that we have always explored. It’s what we do as humans.
“So we wrote this script, found some of the most powerful video we could find, some of which had never been shown before, and we picked some pretty dramatic music called ‘Undiscovered.’ And once Peter Cullen laid down the voiceover for it, it just became something I am insanely proud of.”
In 2013, NASA premiered Space to Ground, a weekly web series initially hosted by Byerly that recapped ISS experiments, spacewalks and vehicle visits. According to Byerly, the series was developed to reach general audiences more effectively than Space Station Live, a daily 30-minute show for the media on NASA TV.
“Space to Ground had to be something that was visual, dynamic and moved fast so that we could put it on the web and on social media,” Byerly said. “We brainstormed different formats, but settled on a two-minute summary of the week’s events on the ISS that was in plain English and also included viewer questions.”
While Space to Ground had no budget, the JSC public affairs team managed to craft it into a highly effective program, Byerly said.
“We actually have a huge soundstage at NASA, which we don’t use very often,” Byerly said. “But we had absolutely zero budget for this show, so we took our rear projection screen, put some cool designs on it, pulled down some unused trusses from the ceiling, shot some blue lights on them, put the camera on a dolly track, and there you had the new set.
“The last step was to come up with a cool name, which our graphic designer Paula Vargas came up with, and we added some awesome music underneath the entire video. And that’s where Space to Ground came from. It’s sometimes amazing what you can do with a very small team, no budget, and no interference.”
The decision to leave NASA PAO:
Byerly left NASA earlier this year to return to private sector work.
“I did launches and landings, and I did commentary on every type of cargo vehicle we have, including the first flights of SpaceX and Orbital. I’ve been inside all of the space shuttles and become friends with some of the smartest and most gifted people on and off the planet.
“I was able to play a small role in the greatest adventure we as humans have ever done, and I got paid to talk about it on television. There wasn’t a moment that went by that I didn’t appreciate it and try to share that excitement with whoever was watching.
But all good things must come to an end.
“The more I got past the shuttle flights, the more I realized it was time for me to move onto new challenges, get back into the corporate world, and try something completely unrelated and different. Do I miss it? Absolutely.
“But if my NASA story is that I was there during a monumental time and I was lucky enough to somehow have an effect, inspire some people and play a small but public role in it, that’s not a bad story to tell.
“It was the honor of my life, but I’m okay with closing that chapter, appreciating it for what it was, and moving on with absolutely no regrets.
“I wouldn’t change a thing, and I will be forever grateful toward everyone inside NASA and everyone outside of NASA who supported what I did.”
(Images via NASA and Josh Byerly).