On A Higher Mission

Kwatsi Alibaruho is stationed firmly on the ground at Johnson Space Center in Houston, but his technical and leadership capabilities influence spaceships traveling more than 200 hundred miles above Earth. Alibaruho is the first African American to rise to the post of flight director for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is responsible for the general management and carrying out of International Space Station expeditions.

The 35-year-old graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology works at Mission Control, leading an elite team of flight controllers, engineering experts, and support staff. Alibaruho went on duty in August 2005 after completing more than 700 hours of flight director training.

For his first lead assignment as flight director, Alibaruho and his team successfully docked a Russian cargo vehicle with the ISS in December 2005. “I was nervous, but confident,” recalls Alibaruho. Tension was heightened during the critical docking stage. If anything went wrong, technically, it could have been a disaster because the two vehicles could damage each other when they touched. “Everybody’s looking at you, thinking, ‘OK, they say you are the man. What have you got?'” Alibaruho recalls.

Competition for NASA flight director positions is intense, second only to astronaut selection. Alibaruho has qualifications; he was one of only nine new flight directors chosen out of a pool of 241 applicants. His first test was how well he performed his first lead assignment.

Alibaruho is not only a brilliant tech guru, he is an outstanding leader who deploys superb people skills, says Carey Cobb, a NASA training manager at Johnson Space Center. He has an aptitude for “seeing the big picture of a problem and then understanding how to orchestrate a solution through a team of people,” Cobb adds.

Alibaruho, the son of a Ugandan father and American mother, liked science-fiction as a child and started aiming for MIT while in junior high school. He received an undergraduate degree in avionics from MIT in 1994 and was employed by NASA in 1995.

Alibaruho is excited about the country’s drive to put a man on Mars. He says it will stimulate the U.S. educational system to produce more engineers and scientists of all ethnicities. Currently, fewer than 10% of the 15,000 civil servants and contractors working at the Johnson Space Center, estimates Alibaruho, are African Americans.

Alibaruho has no strong desire to travel into space himself. During his career at NASA, he wants to play a role when the U.S. returns to the moon, establishes a lunar colony, and sends people to Mars. He hopes to serve as either a flight director, a position usually held for seven to 10 years, or a program manager. In September he will be one of six flight directors when the space shuttle docks at the International Space Station.