Former NASA flight director joins aerospace engineering department

By Mitchell LaFrance
The aerospace engineering department at Iowa State is welcoming back a familiar face this spring to teach senior design classes.

Tomas Gonzalez-Torres, former flight director at the NASA Johnson Space Center, has moved back to Iowa so he can lend his experience to students looking to further their careers in the aviation and aerospace industry.

Born in Puerto Rico but having grown up in Iowa, Tomas enrolled at Iowa State University in 1992 with the dream of one day working at NASA.

“I chose Iowa State because of the well-known engineering department,” Gonzalez-Torres said. “I heard that the aerospace department had a co-op program with NASA, and that really interested me.”

Gonzalez-Torres participated in co-curricular activities while in college that helped him in his pursuit of a career with NASA.

“I was in the Iowa State Space Society, where we actually took a trip to the Johnson Space Center,” he said.

After graduating in 1998 with a degree in aerospace engineering, Gonzalez-Torres was able to attain a full-time job with the NASA Johnson Space Center as an extravehicular activity instructor (EVA) and flight controller. He was offered a job after graduation at the Space Center, thanks to his co-op experience.

While at NASA, Gonzalez-Torres worked his way up to group leader of the EVA and flight controllers and then eventually to flight director.

“I have never been the smartest person in the room, but I have been the hardest worker,” Gonzalez-Torres said. “It’s a team effort. I worked really hard, and that should always be the case for everybody.”

During his time at the Johnson Space Center, Gonzalez-Torres helped train astronauts and prepare them for spacewalks.

“The first part of my job, I was in the group that trained astronauts to do spacewalks,” Gonzalez-Torres said. “Every mission was different. I got to participate in training the astronauts for multiple missions, one of them being repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The flight director position is no small task and carries with it incredible responsibility.

“As a flight director, I wanted to make as big of an impact as I could on the space program,” Gonzalez-Torres said. “I didn’t get to physically do space missions, but I got to be directly in line with assuring that the astronauts doing those things had the right tools and knowledge to complete the mission.”

Being given the opportunity to come back and teach at Iowa State is a great opportunity for him to give back, Gonzalez-Torres explained.

“It’s my alma matter, and getting this opportunity to be a part of the aerospace program is fantastic,” he said. “It lets me talk every day about space and engineering. I’m able to pass along the knowledge and experience that I have.”

Gonzalez-Torres also had advice for students in the engineering field who may be wondering which direction they should take.

“For those that are just starting, look into co-ops or internships,” Gonzalez-Torres said. “I’ve seen students that loved their internships and students that hated them, but it’s a win-win either way. If you have an internship and hate it, great; it helps tweak the direction you want to go. If it’s something you want to do, you’ll work hard at it.”