The Engineer Who Helped Launch a New Era in Human Spaceflight

Nicole Jordan serves as NASA’s mission manager on SpaceX Crew-1, which is the first operational crew to reach the International Space Station on a commercial vehicle.
December 15, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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A decade ago, Nicole Jordan was busy designing spacesuits for NASA’s Constellation program, a Bush-era plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020. It was the culmination of a long-time dream for Jordan, who grew up immersed in the astronautical culture of Houston, Texas, the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. 

Then, in October 2010, the Obama administration axed Constellation, dashing Jordan’s hopes of contributing to a Moon shot.

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“If it were a movie, it would be the second third of the movie where, you know, the really bad thing happens, and you have to fight your way back,” Jordan said in a call. “It was the absolute low of my career.”

“If you work in space long enough, that just happens—everybody goes through it,” she added. “But it was the first time for me and I really thought we were going back to the Moon. I really thought I was working on the spacesuit that was going to get us there. And it was just devastating when it all got canceled.”

While Constellation didn’t end up launching astronauts in 2020, another incredibly significant mission did: SpaceX’s Crew-1. On November 15, four astronauts (and one Baby Yoda doll) blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in a SpaceX Crew Dragon called Resilience. It was only the second time the novel vehicle had carried humans to space, following an initial demonstration flight in May. It was the first time an operational crew was launched from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

As the mission manager for Crew-1, Jordan played a crucial role in bringing this new era of human spaceflight to reality, even as she continues to work toward the safe return of the crew in March.  

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The mission manager is “the single point of contact and integrator for all aspects of the mission,” Jordan explained. “You try to keep tabs on the engineering, the operations, the crew training, and the hardware production: What is the critical path of the schedule? What are the major problems that need to be solved?”  

Jordan has spent her career building the technical breadth and steely reserve it takes to excel at such a complex and high-stakes job. Fascinated by human spaceflight from an early age—”I just couldn't think of a cooler thing to do,” Jordan said—she started interning at NASA in high school and kept returning as she earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.

Jordan went on to receive two master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics, as well as technology and policy (she won MIT’s Thesis of the Year for her work in the latter topic). 

She officially started working at NASA in 2006 and spent the next decade-and-change occupying various leadership roles at the agency. In a neat case of professional symmetry, she served as the flight lead for SpaceX’s CRS-1 mission in 2012. As SpaceX’s first operational cargo run to the ISS, CRS-1 was the robotic forebear of Crew-1.

All of her hard work and diverse skills led Jordan to the most hair-raising moment in an astronautical engineer’s career: the countdown to the launch of a rocket that has a bunch of humans packed on top of it. As the seconds ticked down on that Sunday evening last month, Jordan was hyper-focused on the data, the calls, the checks, and the completion of various milestones, one by one. 

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After it all went off without a hitch, she returned home and watched NASA’s feed of the launch to fully experience the historic voyage, as millions of other space enthusiasts did.

“It's the first fight with four people on it, and it's this incredible, awesome, diverse, mixed crew with an international astronaut,” Jordan said, referring to Soichi Noguchi, a Crew-1 astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). “That was a ton of work because of all of our crazy export control laws, and getting JAXA comfortable with letting Soichi fly.” 

“There's a woman on this flight and that is amazing, and there's a Black astronaut, and that is awesome representation,” she added, spotlighting Crew-1 members Shannon Walker and Victor Glover. “Just the fact that it's called Resilience—I love that name. I think it's so perfect.”

Resilience is indeed a theme of 2020, as people around the world grapple with a devastating pandemic, social upheavals, and economic hardships. For Jordan, this tumultuous era seems eerily reminiscent of the Apollo age, when America reached for the Moon even as the nation was racked by violence and suffering on the ground.

“I think a lot of us have been thinking a lot about the parallels between 2020 and 1968,” Jordan said. “It's not a perfect comparison by any means, but I know it's been a really dark year. I have family members that have been laid off because of COVID.”

“I'm not saying that [Crew-1] fixes everything, but I do hope that it can be a bit of a bright spot that can make people forget about all the terrible things that have happened this year for a little bit,” she concluded. “We can be an example of hope to people.”