Marianne J. Dyson

A Passion for Space: Adventures of a Pioneering Female NASA Flight Controller

by Marianne Dyson

Cover of A Passion for Space.
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I was fortunate enough to be one of the first female flight controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At a reunion of the NASA Flight Activities Branch a few years ago, I discovered that not everyone has my packrat tendencies! Apparently, I am one of the only people who kept a journal, took old console logs and outdated documents home, and tucked snapshots and letters and newspaper clippings related to the early Shuttle Program into albums. At the urging of other former flight controllers, I turned this source material into A Passion for Space which was published by Springer in 2015.

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My journey to NASA and a lifelong interest in space began with the inspiration of Apollo. My book opens with the story of where I was the day men first landed on the Moon.

July 20, 1969

"Girls! Girls!" someone hollered from outside the big red barn. I was at Rambling Acres Horseback-Riding Camp, near Canton, Ohio. "Put your brooms away and come up to the house! They've landed on the Moon!"

I didn't need a second invitation. I'd enthusiastically followed the space program since first grade when John Glenn had orbited the Earth. I was 14 now, and I loved space even more than horses. The previous spring, I'd even written and hand printed a 60-page book, "The Apollo Program" for my eighth-grade English class.

I dashed from the stall, latching the gate behind me, and ran up the dusty road to the camp owner's house. "Wait up!" my best friend Chrisse hollered as she scampered up the road behind me, followed by the other girls.

The owner, Mrs. Noll, insisted we brush dust and straw off each other's clothes and remove our dirty shoes before entering her house. Then we filed into her living room and settled down cross-legged on the carpet, facing the television set. The TV was a stand-alone piece of furniture, a box on legs about three feet tall with "rabbit ears" antenna. The picture was in black and white.

The familiar face of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite appeared on the screen. In his deep voice, he explained that Mission Control in Houston had given Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the "go" to exit their spacecraft. The men had been scheduled to sleep, but were too keyed up after the exciting first landing on the Moon.

I was keyed up, too. It was the first day of camp, and I'd just met five new girls. We had plenty to talk about while we waited for the astronauts to leave the lunar lander. "Which one do you think is the cutest?" Sue asked me as we loaded our plates for dinner.

"It doesn't matter," I said, snatching a roll. "They're married!"

Sue frowned and then sighed as she scooped beans onto her plate. "Wouldn't it be dreamy to marry an astronaut?"

"Yeah," I agreed. Then I added silently, "But even better if you could be one!"

We finished dinner, and the astronauts still hadn't emerged from their ship. We wondered what they were having for dinner. (I found out later, bacon cubes. Yuk!) We trotted back to the barn for evening chores. I brushed the horse who shared my nickname, Red. Then we got our showers and returned to Mrs. Noll's house.

The television spurted static-filled voices of the crew talking with Mission Control. What was taking so long? Why didn't they just open the door and hop out? Bedtime came and went. Luckily, Mrs. Noll let us stay up for this historic occasion.

Finally, six hours after Apollo 11 landed, the ghostly black and white "live from the Moon" image flickered on the screen. At 10:39 p.m. Eastern time, Armstrong spoke the now-famous words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," as he stepped backwards off the ladder onto the lunar surface. I remember thinking how I'd like to follow in his footsteps.

But in 1969, there was no such thing as a female astronaut. No woman in my family had even gone to college. Yet, the previous winter, I'd written in my diary, "I wish very much to be able to be an astronaut. I'm sorry I'm a girl, but I'll have to try harder then."

As I gazed up at the half-full Moon that July night, I marveled that there were men up there looking back at me. If those men could walk on the Moon, then maybe a skinny red-headed girl from a small town in Ohio could find a way to go to college and one day work for NASA.

END of excerpt.

Marianne, age 14, 2nd from right (1969)
Marianne, 2nd from right, at Rambling Acres, July 1969. Best friend Chrisse is 5th from right. Girl on far right is Judy. Our counselor is standing. Help identifying the other girls would be appreciated.


Review by Elizabeth Griffin, The Observatory, Vol. 136 (1255), December, 2016. "The book is well written, and flows energetically with a diarist's detail through all the many assignments to which she was entrusted at NASA. This book encourages, inspires, and delights, and should be on the reading list of everyone: educators, scientists, and particularly women scientists or not."

Reviewed by Mark Lardas on Sunday, July 17, 2016. He said the book, "captures the excitement of the early shuttle program, while grounding it in the realities of living in late 20th century America." Read the review in the Galveston Daily News.

Reviewed by Claire Stephens in the magazine of the National Space Society, Ad Astra, Summer 2016 issue.

Featured in an article by Brian Albrecht in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, print copy January 31, and online February 1, 2016.

Financial Times>Business Books> Review: 'A Passion for Space', by Marianne Dyson. November 25, 2015. Anjana Ahuja writes, "A Passion for Space is not entirely dissimilar to EL James's racy bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. Both feature ambitious female protagonists and dominant males; the action rattles on breathlessly; and stylistic shortcomings are balanced by a surfeit of frankness." Read more.


Please mark these corrections (sorry!) and updates as follows:

Page 17, 4th sentence. Change to read, "All professors were male except Patricia Reiff who was an adjunct professor."

Page 51, 1st paragraph, add date: John Young (1930-2018)

Page 67, last paragraph, change Hutsel to Hutsell.

Page 85, 3rd paragraph, change “three times” to “four times” & “Gemini 3" to "Gemini 3 & 10”

Page 87, last line, add dates: Jay Greene (1942-2017)

Page 123, 2nd paragraph, and Page 125, 10th paragraph, change McClendon to McLendon.

Page 156, caption, change Burleson, to Burlison.

Page 167, 2nd paragraph, change 1980s and 1960s to 80s and 60s.

Page 214, Janis Plesums is a man. So in the last paragraph, replace sentence and first part of parenthetical "The only other women (Plesums and" with "The only other woman with a front room position on STS-4 was Flight Surgeon Ellen Schulman. (Anngienetta [sic] Johnson had been"

Page 259, 2nd paragraph, Denny Holt was not the Sim Supervisor for STS-5, so delete his name.

Page 275, replace caption for 13.7. with "STS-5. Columbia's image is reflected in rainwater on the normally dry lakebed at Edwards AFB."

Page 285, 2nd paragraph, cross out "Janis Plesums with"

Page 323, 1st paragraph, add dates: Sue H. Garman (1949-2017). Her husband Jack (1944-2016).

Page 376, delete index listing for Denny Holt, change Hutsel to Hutsell

Page 379, delete index listing for Janis Plesums

Women in Control

I created a historic list of the first female flight controllers for NASA.

Order A Passion for Space from

Check who is mentioned in the book via the Free Index from Springer.

Order eBook from Amazon: A Passion for Space

Invite me to Speak!

I love to share my passion for space. Check my Author Visits tab for more information.

Dyson at AIAA
Sharing my passion for space with members of AIAA at NASA Glenn, 2016. Photo by Ed Wong/AIAANOS.

Exhibit at IWASM.
Women in Mission Control Exhibit at the International Women in Aviation and Space Museum. (Photo: IWASM)

A Passion for Space is part of a new exhibit about Women in Mission Control at the International Women's Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. The exhibit includes my photo, badges (pink one from STS-1 in upper left, green from STS-4 and 5 on right in back), a cardboard shuttle (center top) I used on console, and the FAO Console copies of the STS-1 Ascent and Entry Checklists (left) that I donated.

As part of NASA's 50th anniversary, I was a guest on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston on Nov. 11, 2008. I discussed the first five Shuttle flights, including the fire during STS-5. Listen to show.

Marianne Dyson, STS-4 Entry Team FAO (NASA photo, 1982)
Marianne Dyson, STS-4 Entry Team FAO (NASA photo, 1982)

STS-1 Photos

See team photos and find out more about NASA's First Women Flight Controllers.

Marianne Dyson (Timeline) and Pearline Collector (Ascent Specialist) in FAO SSR © Marianne Dyson

Mi-Mi Lau (Timeline) and Carolynn Conley (Timeline) in FAO SSR © Marianne Dyson

Marianne Dyson (Timeline) in FAO SSR © Marianne Dyson

Marianne visiting Ted Dyson (Winds) in Guidance SSR © Marianne Dyson

Marianne with rabbit ears by Chuck Dieterich in FAO SSR © Marianne Dyson

Ted Dyson (Winds) in Guidance SSR © Marianne Dyson

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