Misty Snopkowski has worked on human spaceflight initiatives since 2003, building up expertise with the Space Shuttle and International Space Station Programs and now standing on the precipice of the new era in human spaceflight with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
“I got to work up until the very last shuttle launch in 2011, which was a pretty amazing period in time,” Snopkowski said. “Then I joined commercial crew. You flip the script and go into a brand new program. I was this young person who got to start at the very beginning of a new program and most people don’t ever get that opportunity.”
A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Florida, Snopkowski’s work for NASA now revolves around teaming with the SpaceX engineers modifying Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions flying astronauts to the space station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Falcon 9 rockets. As the launch site integrator, Snopkowski is part of the team certifying when SpaceX will be ready to launch commercial crew missions. The company, which has launched a series of cargo resupply missions to the station from a launch pad a couple miles south, also intends to use 39A for its Falcon Heavy rockets.
Snopkowski hoped her career would lead to space work, but she did not expect to be part of a team helping bring the worlds of her favorite movies into the reality of 21st century spaceflight.
“When I was a younger kid, I was always into math and science and, it’s going to sound nerdy, but I was into Star Wars and Star Trek and was fascinated by it at a young age,” Snopkowski said. “I found out what an engineer was and I just went down that road. The things I’ve been able to do are bigger than I’ve ever dreamed. Way cooler than I could’ve ever thought.”
Right now, the focus is on the crew access arm, a movable bridge that astronauts will use to cross from the launch tower to the spacecraft on launch day. Access arms are vital to safety plans for everything from simple spacecraft loading to emergency evacuations in the final minutes of a countdown. That’s why designs for them are so closely scrutinized and their installation watched so closely.
But the crew access arm is just one small component of the launch complex that made its iconic reputation launching Apollo-Saturn V missions to the moon and then served as one of two shuttle launch pads for 30 years. In the time SpaceX has spent modifying the pad, the company also added a 300-foot long rocket processing hangar at the base of the pad, built a rail system to roll the rocket out of the hangar up to the top of the launch mount and constructed a large transporter-erector able to stand up the rocket to its vertical launch position.
Unlike previous programs that called for NASA to design a structure and system while the company built it, the commercial crew effort is centered on industry designing, building, operating and maintaining the systems themselves. NASA provided a list of requirements the systems must meet in order to launch astronauts to the station and the companies were encouraged to bring forward their unique approaches.
“I’m out at Pad A at least once a week,” Snopkowski said. “We do a walk down and look at the modifications they are making for crew launches. We’re one of many customers that are going to be using that launch pad.”
The teams at NASA and SpaceX know the decisions they make could have ultimate consequences much later down the road, but that doesn’t deter them from getting the work done, Snopkowski said.
“One of the things that we have learned in working with all the partners is that you don’t need 200 people to come to a meeting to get something done,” Snopkowski said. “There is something to having a small group of focused folks to come together and come to a solution. We’ve learned a lot about that, being lean and to pick up the pace to keep up with our energetic partners.”
For NASA, the benefit of this effort is regular U.S. astronaut transportation services to the station from two independent providers – SpaceX with the Crew Dragon atop its Falcon 9 and Boeing with its CST-100 Starliner atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The new systems will allow the station to add another resident crew member and double the amount of time dedicated to scientific research in orbit.
“Misty is the kind of person you really want on your team,” said Don Pearson, manager of Ground and Mission Operations for the Commercial Crew Program. “She has the technical expertise, the ability to coordinate and collaborate among multiple disciplines, and the passion and energy to make it successful in our rapid-paced world”.
Although flight tests and the operational missions will be the most visual progress, Snopkowski said the team is keeping a close eye on all of the work ahead of them.
“We’ve been in this development and design phase, and now we’re turning a corner where we’re starting to get into fabrication and manufacturing and operations, and we’re seeing real hardware,” Snopkowski said. “That’s kind of challenging, because it’s been five years since we’ve done operations for human spaceflight. We’ve got to learn everything we can about these systems, what they are doing and how to apply that to crew.”