If you strolled the hallways of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in the 1990s, you would’ve heard men and women talking about the Mission Control, the Mir space station and the space shuttle Atlantis.
You also would’ve heard them talking about Scouting.
“It was pretty common knowledge that a lot of the astronaut office had been Eagle Scouts from the earliest days of the program,” says Paul Dye, an Eagle Scout who retired from NASA in 2013 as the longest-serving flight director in history. “Within our flight director office, we had several guys who were Scout leaders because their kids were now in Scouting, and there was significant talk of Scouting.
“Flight directors are an exceedingly small fraternity, and you have to have demonstrated significant leadership skills to be selected, so we just assumed that everyone had picked them up somewhere.”
In his career at NASA, Dye (Eagle Class of 1973) was involved in 39 missions, including nine as the lead flight director.
As flight director, he planned, directed and controlled the activities of the space shuttle team. His missions included both the first trip to the fully assembled Mir space station in 1996 (STS-79) and the last docking of a space shuttle at Mir in 1998 (STS-91).
Bryan on Scouting talked with Dye as he waited out a winter storm at his home in Nevada. We chatted about his journey from a Cub Scout in Pack 186 of Roseville, Minn., to one of the top jobs at NASA. He shared the story of his toughest day on the job — the Columbia disaster — and how Scouting helped him handle that tragedy. And we talked about how today’s Scouting program helps young people put themselves in the pilot’s seat, setting them up for success in whatever sparks their interest — space, science or whatever the stars might hold.
“The older I get, the more I realize that Scouting truly shaped who I am,” he says. “Early learning is the strongest learning, and developing mental discipline as well as physical capability gave me an edge up on everyone else around me.”
What does a flight director do?
When explaining his job to Scouts or other audiences, Dye first asks whether they’ve seen Apollo 13, which he calls one of the most accurate movies ever made about spaceflight.
If they’ve seen the film, “I point out that the flight director is the guy in the white vest with a crew cut,” Dye says, referring to Gene Kranz, who was played by Ed Harris in the film.
“Essentially, the flight director is in charge of planning, training for and flying human-crewed spaceflights,” Dye says. “We have the complete authority to make those flights happen and make any decision necessary for the safety of the crew and success of the mission.”
Even when there wasn’t an active mission, Dye stayed busy — with no two days ever the same. Like a basketball player shooting hundreds of free throws to prepare for a game, Dye and his crew spent months in simulators and classrooms training for each mission.
“A typical training day will start early and include about eight hours of on-console time, with failures being thrown at us left and right,” he says. “We’ll then spend an hour or more debriefing the lessons learned.”
During missions, Dye worked nine-hour shifts before passing the command to a member of his team. But as soon as he got to his Houston home, Dye turned on NASA TV to monitor what was happening in his absence.
“We eat, sleep and breathe spaceflight,” he says.
His darkest day at NASA
On Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing all seven people aboard.
All four of the American men on Columbia were involved in Scouting in their youth, with pilot William McCool the lone Eagle Scout on board.
Dye was not working the Columbia mission, but as soon as he found out that NASA had lost the vehicle and crew, he was put in charge of setting up the emergency operations center.
“We began to take reports of debris falling down all around East Texas,” he says. “We had people coming in from all of the technical organizations, from emergency teams, and even agents from the FBI and other security agencies. We didn’t know if we had a crime scene or just technical bad luck.”
Dye says the leadership fundamentals he learned in Scouting were tested that day. They helped him find order amid the chaos.
“Within a couple of hours, we had maps, communications and teams set up to handle the inflow of information and come up with decisions … Scouting gives you the skills to do that.”
It started in Scouting
To really understand Dye’s journey to Mission Control, you have to go back to the beginning.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dye was a member of Cub Scout Pack 186 and Boy Scout Troop 186 — both of Roseville, Minn.
“Our town was an outer suburban ring, so it was quite easy to find fields and forests to roam within a short walk from our meeting place,” he says. “In the summer, it was common to show up for a troop meeting and run out to a nearby lake and canoe until sunset.”
Troop 186 was a proud camping troop, Dye says, averaging more than a campout each month. That included 12-day canoe trips in the Boundary Waters, a week at Tomahawk Scout Reservation for summer camp and plenty of weekend adventures close to home
“We camped all year long, winter included — in tents,” he says.
In 1971, Dye and his friends from Troop 186 hiked at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
“It was a real highlight and began my permanent love of the mountains,” he says.
He received his Eagle Scout Award in 1973. By then he was also involved in Exploring, the BSA’s career exploration program. He was a founding member of Explorer Post 641, created by Hendrickson Aviation and the 3M Aviation Club. At just 16 years old, Dye got to help rebuild two Piper J-3 Cubs and learn to fly in them.
“If it weren’t for my involvement in the Aviation Explorer post, I never would have had the chance to move from model airplanes into the real thing,” Dye says. “This was my major break that got me into flying. I realize today that those men essentially subsidized my way into aviation, allowing me to get my private pilot’s license while I was still in high school — and for just a little more than $500.”
College prep, NASA style
A few years later, Dye was studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota. He hoped to work for a small airplane company nearby, but in his junior year, that company closed its doors.
Dye heard about an opportunity to become a cooperative education student at NASA in Houston.
“I applied, they accepted me, and when I graduated two years later, they gave me a full-time job,” he says.
Once again, Dye found his experience in Scouting and Exploring had done the trick.
“I really got in because of my experience in aviation and my leadership skills,” he says. “I really do think that Scouting was one of the best ways for a kid to learn leadership skills in my day — and speculate that it still can be today.”
He calls on other Scouting alumni with cool jobs to share their experiences and open doors for Scouts.
“Scouting was great at giving this young, not particularly athletic kid the opportunity to learn that I really could do daring and risky things and survive,” he says. “It should still be true today.”
Keep reaching for the stars
The magnetic allure of a career at NASA hasn’t changed since Dye’s childhood; only the target has changed. While return trips to the moon are possible, today’s budding astronauts and flight directors can also dream of manned missions to Mars.
But getting there — to Mars or to NASA — won’t be easy.
“The first thing I always tell young people is to do what they enjoy, and follow whatever gives them excitement,” Dye says. “If that happens to be the space program or aviation, then study as much as you can in STEM.”
Dye says young people must:
- “Give it your all, and go where the other kids don’t.”
- “Find a way to develop leadership skills. Scouting was my way, and a great way. There are others, but find something!”
- “Think outside the box.”
- “Don’t just do what is required. Go far beyond it.”
- “Work with your hands. Take things apart, design things, build things, fix things.”
- “Explore and seek adventure.”
Those things, Dye says, “will put you out front where you need to be for a NASA career — or any career that you might choose.”
Why America still needs Scouting
Dye was so eager to speak with Bryan on Scouting and share his story because he knows that our nation needs Scouting now more than ever.
“It helps young people to develop a moral compass as well as leadership skills that will serve them throughout their lives,” he says. “You cannot succeed in a risky business without a strong team, and you can’t have a strong team without trust.
“I think that ‘trustworthy’ is probably the right thing to have up front in the Scout Law. It’s something that we need to instill in the next generation — and the one beyond that.”
Dye writes about his 30 years with NASA in Shuttle, Houston (Hachette Books, 2020). The book offers the unique perspective of a man who occupied the “center seat” at NASA longer than anyone else.
“There are lots of stories of what it was like to be a part of such a remarkable team, and it has a great many lessons on leadership spread throughout — and condensed into the last couple of chapters,” Dye tells Bryan on Scouting. “My goal was to make it a good resource for up-and-coming leaders in any adventurous endeavor.”
Thanks to Bill Steele for the tip!