A former NASA flight director explains why he couldn’t do anything but lie alone in a darkened room during parts of space missions

During space missions, Hill said a ‘normal life’ was impossible. Paul Sean Hill

• Former NASA flight director Paul Hill told Business Insider about working mission control shifts during space missions.

• NASA’s mission control work is divided up between three teams, who each work a nine hour shift.

• Hill said the work became more gruelling as he got older.

When it came time to recover from a shift in mission control, former NASA flight director Paul Hill would head home.

There, he might grab something to eat or catch up with his two kids.

Then he would retreat to the quietest room in the house, where his wife covered the windows with blankets to block out the sun. Hill would try to fall asleep, until it came time to head back to the mission control center.

NASA’s mission control is run by three teams rotating between nine-hour shifts. A different flight director leads each team. Hill, the author of “Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom: A Guide to Unleashing Team Performance,” said there’s usually about an hour of overlap between each shift.

Over the years, Hill worked on 24 different space shuttle and ISS missions as a flight director. He also led the investigation into the 2003 Columbia disaster.

During space missions, he said a “normal life” was impossible.

“It wasn’t like going to the control room and flying a spacecraft was just a job and then you went home and you went to restaurants and you went out,” he told Business Insider. “Pretty much during a shuttle mission, you were all mission all the time.”

Even when mission control team members weren’t on the console, they might still be spending up to 12 hours a day working in the mission control center. Over time, it became harder for Hill to power through the gruelling shifts.

“You get into your mid- to late-forties and the body doesn’t work like that anymore,” he said.

And sometimes the system led to friction. Hill described one flight director who “could not let go.” On occasions, Hill said the individual would have his team work through two shifts, while the other team sat there “twiddling their thumbs.”

But Hill said the arrangement was far better than that of the Russian space program, which would require an “A team” to run through a 24-hour shift, then bring on a less qualified “B team” for the next, day-long shift.

“I don’t want some person who’s been up for 30 hours on console flying our spaceship,” he said. “Train all the people to be equally amazing and then it doesn’t matter who’s there. We don’t need anybody staying up all night.”