Heidi Poppelreiter (Astronomy) 

Exploring new frontiers

Heidi Poppelreiter is a driving force behind the International Space Station. Literally. As a NASA flight controller, the one-time Sac State physics student is part of a team that operates the station from the ground in Houston. Poppelreiter’s job is specific: helping various international vehicles rendezvous safely with the space station.

“I make sure the visiting vehicles are safe as they come close to and dock with the station,” Poppelreiter explains.

The docking crafts have many functions. For example, in addition to providing supplies and removing trash from the space station, the Automated Transfer Vehicle operated by the European Space Agency moves the space station out of the path of oncoming debris, such as leftover rocket parts or meteorites. The Automated Transfer Vehicle is also used to boost the station into a different orbit.

Poppelreiter attended Sac State from 2001 to 2003, taking physics classes in anticipation of a career in astronomy.

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at the stars, and I knew for a long time I wanted to work for NASA,” Poppelreiter says. “After I took engineering classes at Sac State I realized how much I really liked it and that led to my desire to work as a flight controller.”

She earned a degree in aerospace and astronautics engineering at Purdue University in Indiana, building on the foundation in physics she gained at Sac State.

“The physics department gave me fantastic guidance on the things I could do in the future,” she says. “I got a good, strong foundation at Sac State that gave me an advantage when I transferred.”

When she is not making the meticulous calculations needed to guide vehicles safely to the space station, Poppelreiter is planning complex docking operations with people from other space programs around the world.

“The job requires a lot of interpersonal skills they don’t teach you in school,” she says. “We are not allowed to share everything with our international partners, but we often help each other with operations and design decisions."

Poppelreiter isn’t an astronaut so has never been in the space station, but she says being a flight controller is “exhilarating.”

“It’s very fast-paced. It takes many hours of very intense operations to actually get a craft docked to the space station,” she says. “Keeping an eye on everything that goes on is quite a challenge, and I love that challenge.”

This article was originally published in the Summer 2011 edition of Sac State Magazine.