Meet the latest Hokie heading up the flight desk at NASA
Have you heard the story about the flight director who missed his first flight to NASA?
It’s a tale Garrett Hehn’s mother, Amy Hehn, will likely not forget.
“He goes to check in early online, and he looks at me and goes, ‘The plane is taking off right now,’” Amy Hehn said of that day in 2014. “So there he is, it’s like 2 in the afternoon, and it was amazing. He and I start moving – it was like a dance, but there were no words. He got himself rebooked. I ironed his clothes. And he was packed and out the door in a half hour.”
Now a humorous bit of family folklore, it’s also a moment Amy Hehn believes clearly illustrates qualities that have helped propel her son to leading mission control for NASA.
“That was just such a great example of how he has this innate calm demeanor and can think through stressful situations,” said Amy Hehn. “What he does now can be very stressful, and they [NASA] need people who are calm under stress.”
A 2014 Virginia Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, Garrett Hehn was named as one of seven new flight directors at NASA in June. He follows in the footsteps of three other Virginia Tech alumni who rose to the position, including NASA’s very first flight director, Chris Kraft ’44.
“That’s prerequisite knowledge for sure, and it’s a reminder every day,” said Garrett Hehn, who works in the Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control Center in Houston. “The people I’ve seen at the flight director desk, and even some of the people I’ve not met – your Gene Krantzes, your Glen Lunneys, your people who made history – are some of the people I respect most as a professional. It is a ton of responsibility to carry that forward.”
Garrett Hehn is currently assigned to lead missions related to the International Space Station, which requires three teams working in nine-hour shifts to provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Days are scheduled down to five-minute increments to maximize the critical time of the crew in space.
“It’s kind of a unique fraternity,” Garrett Hehn said of being a flight director. “All those people who came before you know how you feel because inevitably there will be a time when the flight director will be called on to make a decision that could have ultimate consequences. That could be in order to save the vehicle. It could be to save the mission. Or it could be to save the crew. That’s the authority the flight director has.”
Unlike many of his colleagues, Garrett Hehn didn’t grow up being all that starstruck by space. Instead, his childhood interests revolved around exploration and problem solving.
“I did love being outside, building forts in the woods, building a bridge, and just seeing what was on the other side,” Garrett Hehn said.
He also enjoyed math, however, he recalled timed exercises with multiplication tables that caused him great stress in elementary school.
“I could do the math in my sleep, but the idea that the clock is on and go do it, I would just melt down. I remember coming home literally crying because I found it so frustrating,” said Garrett Hehn. “I really like that story now because my entire job is about not panicking.”
Amy Hehn credits her son’s ability to stay calm under pressure in part to the lessons he learned from sports.
“I think athletics, particularly swimming, started to give him structure in persevering,” she said. “It’s not like he was just born a calm kid.”
Swimming also provided opportunities for Garrett Hehn to compete in college, but the sport itself took second place when choosing which educational opportunity to seize, according to his mother.
“He was smart enough to know, ‘I’ve got to find a college for what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” Amy Hehn said. “And that’s why he chose Virginia Tech – great swimming program, phenomenal aerospace engineering program.”
Garrett Hehn swam as a member of the Virginia Tech men’s swimming and diving team for two seasons and was the recipient of the Athletic Department’s coveted Skelton Award in spring 2012. He transitioned to a role as a coach for his final two seasons, which brought new opportunities to learn and grow.
“Ultimately, it can be quite challenging to motivate a peer, to convince them my coaching is what’s best for them,” Garrett Hehn said. “Figuring that out then is hugely beneficial to me now. Coaching the swim team probably has the most direct connection to what I do now. It’s that same joy of the team that’s all pulling in the same direction. I love that part of mission control.”
Garrett Hehn also made a name for himself on the academically, according to Gary Seidel, associate professor of aerospace engineering.
“He’s one of the students you get to know because they show up to all the office hours and they’re asking the good questions,” Seidel said. “At that time, he was still competing as a student-athlete, so that was impressive to me. That he could manage a student-athlete’s schedule and do so well, not only in my course, but all his courses. He was one of our top students.”
Garrett Hehn recalled learning a lot in Seidel’s courses, not just about the subject matter, but also about working with others.
“I remember Dr. Seidel being like, ‘Hey, grab the person next to you and work through this,’” he said. “Having to pick up with a potential total stranger and work through something like that definitely paid dividends.”
Garrett Hehn said he was drawn to aerospace engineering because of the appeal of figuring out how to go faster and farther to the edge of what’s possible. He said his courses, especially his senior design project, helped him understand how to chase those goals in a less than perfect environment.
“The reality is the real world is going to give you less than perfect data and kind of vague instructions, and you have to figure it out,” he said. “Those sorts of people who can figure it out, those are the types of engineers who succeed at NASA.”
Upon graduating, Garrett Hehn was hired by a contractor at NASA before transitioning to become a civil servant a few months later. During that period, he was at Johnson Space Center training to become a trajectory operations officer (TOPO) for the International Space Station. In 2018, while still a TOPO, he also began to work as a flight dynamics officer for the Artemis missions.
After applying and a thorough interview process, Garrett Hehn got the call up to flight director on a Sunday after having worked the previous night on wet dress rehearsal for Artemis 1, the capsule that return to Earth after a historic moon mission in December. Several other Hokies were also involved with that project.
“Thankfully, it [the phone call] didn’t wake me up, but it was kind of out of the blue,” Garrett Hehn said. “Immediately, it was pretty shocking. I just felt blessed to be chosen.”
He said his new job is sometime easiest to explain to others by comparing his work to well-known depictions of NASA in pop culture.
“When I explain to my grandma and grandpa what my new job is, I say, I’m like Ed Harris in 'Apollo 13,'” Garrett Hehn said.
When he reflected on his journey, roughly six months after his appointment, Garrett Hehn stressed the importance of students seeking opportunities to learn and grow during college.
“I would like to emphasize that it doesn’t always have to be something as formal as an internship or co-op,” he said. “You can go find that sort of experience in a lot of different places. The important thing is trying and putting yourself out there.”
Amy Hehn said she’s very appreciative her son had those experiences in Blacksburg.
“The education he was provided was the No. 1 reason he got an interview at NASA,” Amy Hehn said. “And then underlying that are the values you all promote and the relationships he built. I couldn’t be more thankful he ended up at Virginia Tech.”