McCullough couldn't help but hearken back through the history of that very room -- a place he calls a "cathedral of spaceflight" -- to the day he watched Columbia explode in 2003 or to his many conversations there with Chris Kraft, NASA's first flight director for whom the building was named in 2011.
"When you hear someone like that talk about being in that room during Apollo 1 and seeing good men die, seeing men accomplish things beyond our wildest dreams like landing on the moon, it becomes bigger than you. It is something that's intangible. You don't just go in that room and not feel it. It is spiritual."
Still, despite the historic moment, during Atlantis' final bittersweet flight, it was business as usual, he says, with little time for personal reflection, even for the men and women who knew pink slips awaited them.
"All the way to 'wheels stop,' it was not just the last flight, it was the current flight," he says. "We were in charge of the vehicle until it was turned over to KSC. We executed the last mission with discipline."
|30 Years of Space Shuttles
NASA's Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011 after 135 missions. The program, which started in 1981, included five orbiters -- Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis.
Together, the ships carried more than 350 people into space. The shuttle was the world's first reusable space vehicle and consisted of three main components -- the reusable orbiter, two solid rocket boosters and the expendable external tank.
Tragedy struck the shuttle program twice, killing all seven crew members aboard each mission -- when the Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch in 1986 and when Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2003.
The remaining shuttles, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis, will be retired to museums.
Nothing less was expected. Discipline has always been a key focus for McCullough and those like him, who have the sobering responsibility of ensuring that astronauts return to Earth safely. In other words, lives have always been at stake.
In McCullough's office hangs a framed reminder "to always be aware that, suddenly and unexpectedly, we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences." That is the second principle of NASA's "Foundations of Mission Operations," which also notes, "We must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed."
"Space is a hazardous environment," McCullough reminds us. "It is a very unforgiving place. It is not a place people naturally thrive in.