The final frontier

George Diller, the voice of NASA’s launch control, provided the commentary for many of NASA’s missions, from the space shuttle to the probes to Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. I interviewed the former Sarasota, Florida resident in 1978 and again a few years ago, as the shuttle program was ending. While Diller has embarked on his final frontier, retirement, his spirit lives on.

He is the voice of launch control. When the space shuttle takes off in a blaze of fire, the sound you hear over the roar of the rockets is George Diller, a former radio journalist turned spokesperson for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I met Diller forty years ago on a runway at the Kennedy Space Center, at the dawn of the space shuttle program, when women and men dreamed of space flight as routine as taking the train to work. As a journalist I’d landed in Florida to cover the construction of the first shuttle that would fly into space, the orbiter Columbia. Diller, a contract public relations specialist assigned to show me the inner workings of KSC, gave me a glimpse at that future, and the vehicle that would take us there.

After thirty years we met again, this time by phone, for an interview about the legacy of the space shuttle program and the future of human space flight.

JW: When people write the history of the space shuttle program, what will they say?

GD: I think it will be recalled as a storied program because the space shuttle has had so many different roles and mission objectives during the thirty years it’s been flying. Initially we looked at it as something that would take everything into space, both commercial payloads as well as NASA’s planetary spacecraft. At that time the International Space Station was still on the drawing boards.

The shuttle started by taking a combination of payloads, commercial payloads on a cost-reimbursable basis and then the other things that NASA wanted to put in low-earth orbit. As a stepping stone to the International Space Station we had Spacelab, designed to lay the groundwork for the space station. Some of our most historic payloads were deployed from the space shuttle bay, and they included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Galileo probe to Jupiter, the Magellan mission to Venus and the Ulysses mission to the sun.

After we resumed flying after the Challenger accident we had a very different objective. We looked to one day commercializing the space shuttle. We would move to the moon or Mars, leaving the private sector to do the lower-orbit missions. That is almost exactly what will happen under President Barack Obama’s mission. The Columbia accident also caused us to think of what the long term mission of the shuttle would be. We divested ourselves of the idea that the shuttle would be a commercial vehicle we could launch every two weeks, more as a delivery truck, and doing space science missions as well. We took it back to being a research-and-development spacecraft.

There are three more launches, including the one on May 14. The final launch will be in November but we’re still talking about one after that.

JW: What is the legacy of the shuttle program?

GD: The space shuttle gave NASA and human space flight the flexibility to do things that no other vehicle had done. Because of the size of the shuttle and the volume of payloads it could take into space, nothing else we can see can haul things that weight as much or are as outsized. The shuttle gave us a capability that we never had before and won’t have in the future.

JW: What has the shuttle program contributed to science and society?

GD: That’s what Spacelab was all about. We wanted to prove the kind of science we wanted to do on the International Space Station, in terms of developing new pharmaceuticals, computer substrates and metals. We were also testing whether humans could survive in space for long periods of time—six months or more. That has spun off to us here on the ground. We can take full advantage of that scientific and commercial innovation.

JW: You’re one of the voices of the launch of the shuttle. How do you feel when it takes off?

GD: For me it’s not much different than it was thirty years ago when we launched the first one. It is such an awesome feeling to see that power, to hear the sound and feel its effect on your chest. The visual effect is particularly alluring during a night launch. It is still thrilling to watch, fascinating and breathtaking.

JW: How do you feel when it’s coming in for a landing?

GD: It’s pretty neat to watch if it’s in the daytime. You see it coming overhead like a silver streak. It’s dropping like a rock, extremely fast. As the wheels come down and the parachute comes out you’re dropping from thousands of miles an hour to about 200 miles an hour in a few minutes. When it goes by it sounds just like a jet.

JW: Do you get anxious when the shuttle comes in for a landing?

GD: I feel like we have a capability since the Columbia accident to know whether we have anything to be concerned about. I have a little apprehension in the launch control center while we’re waiting for Kennedy to make contact. We don’t have communications until 500 miles out and 12 minutes before landing. When we had Columbia going over Texas we were waiting for that contact to happen. We were having communications problems. We know in reentry there can be brief blackout periods. None of the acquisition systems here at the Cape could pick it up.

JW: What’s next for NASA?

GD: It’s still a little hazy. We know that President Obama has cancelled the Constellation program, which offered a smaller version of the shuttle to go back and forth to the space station and a larger version to go back to the moon. Obama has penciled out the craft to the moon. Astronauts will go on commercial rockets in about five years. Since the moon is not in the president’s vision for the agency, we might be going to an asteroid. But we have to have a vehicle different from the one that would go to the moon.

We’re developing technologies that that would go beyond the moon, and that’s going to take about five years to do. We have to decide what kind of rocket that is going to be, who is going to design it and who is going to build it. We need to develop new propulsion technologies.

The rockets that go to the space station will be owned by commercial interests. In the long term all things will be commercially launched by commercial space taxis. It’s not far from NASA’s mission of twenty-five years ago. It wanted to move on to higher programs. It can’t own and maintain all launch vehicles. Commercial rockets will be reconfigured so they can carry astronauts back and forth to the space station. We’re going to reconfigure Complex 39 and Cape Canaveral Air Force station for commercial low-earth orbits.

JW: What’s the future of human space flight?

GD: In the near term the International Space Station is where it’s at. The capabilities that NASA is going to help the private sector develop will create more human potential in low-earth orbit. Beyond that it’s a little hard for me to see. This change in direction from what we’ve be doing over the past five years is a 180, a completely different approach. You have to design and build a new propulsion system. You have to have funding. The legislative process has to weigh in. The Congress feels we need more answers. We’re going to need more time to see. In the meantime our geophysics loads will continue to be launched on unmanned vehicles. We’ve got some exciting planetary flights and earth observation satellite launches planned. That will all continue without missing a beat.

JW: You were there at the inception of America’s space shuttle program. How do you feel when you look back on it?

GD: I feel like I’m privileged to be with NASA. At some point in history we’ll look back at the shuttle much as we did the Apollo program. I was there for the first one and I’ll be there for the last one.

JW: Thanks. I’ll see you in another thirty years.

For a look at life in the late 1960s, download the ebook Finding Woodstock for 99 cents at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

Flying high with the voice of CW McCoy

Pamela Almand used to pilot 747s for a living. Now she’s flying high with a second career as narrator and voiceover actor.

The voice of CW McCoy in Peak Season, Pam has a voice and delivery perfectly suited to strong female leads in the mystery/suspense genre. I’m impressed with how she captures the spirit of CW McCoy and imbues each character with a unique voice. We hear the anguish of Anita Church and the flippant Jersey girl in CW’s neighbor, Cheryl Finzi. As for the male voices, Pam renders them with suitable gravitas but avoids descending into caricature. Hers is an expressive reading that captures every nuance of the dialog.

I interviewed Pam about her career and her company, The Captain’s Voice, via email in late October. Here, in Part 1, she talks about how a career in flying has helped her second career as a narrator take off. In Part 2, which will post later, she hones in on the joys and trials of audiobook narration.

Tell us a bit about the path you took to a career in voice acting and audiobook narration.

My career path has really run the gamut. After a BFA degree in graphic design from Colorado State, I took a flying lesson and got completely hooked. Although at the time there were no female airline pilots, I abandoned the art degree and built my flight time quickly. I did everything from flying single-engine aircraft solo across the Atlantic to being a production test pilot for a business jet manufacturer and eventually became an airline pilot.

In 1995, I was asked to do a national Tylenol TV commercial—fun and very lucrative—and that cascaded to jobs here and there: spots for Northwest Airlines, narrating training videos, doing occasional narration for clients all over the world, all the while toying with the idea of a full-time voiceover career.

When I had to temporarily stop flying for medical reasons, I built a professional recording studio and built my occasional hobby into a full-time business. Although I wasn’t able to go back to flying and finally retired this year, I’ve been tremendously blessed to have had two careers that I passionately love.

Pam Almand in uniformYou piloted a commercial airliner. How has that influenced your audio work?

You know, the perseverance and drive and just plain hard work it took to get on with a major international airline as a woman has served me well in building this business. And as a 747 captain flying all over the world, I caught a lot of grief and teasing from my male colleagues, which helped me develop a thick skin and a sense of humor, traits I find useful in just about anything I’ve ever accomplished.

The most tangible carryover from flying to voiceover is the asset, for a female pilot, of having a low-pitched voice. I think after hearing a few high, squeaky female voices on the radio frequencies I unconsciously deepened my tone, not only for the added gravitas, but for that air of calm authority you expect from an airline captain. I never added the stereotyped Chuck Yeager drawl, though.

And although English is the required aviation language, excellent diction is as essential in international aviation communications as it is for professional voiceover and audiobooks. Think about trying to radio your situation to a Chinese or Russian air traffic controller.

How does audiobook narration differ from your other projects?

Audiobook narration is far more of a storytelling style than normal voiceover work. And in commercials, e-learning, video narration and other voiceover work, I’m rarely called upon to be a male character or to carry on a conversation with myself.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I truly think, to me, fictional audiobooks are a great challenge. You have such an enormous wealth of characters, personalities and voices possible in a span of an 8-12 hour book, it’s a job to keep them straight, to jump from character to character, and simply to keep the stamina required to do hours of recording without the energy fading.

My other voiceover work is broken up into 30-second, 60-second TV or radio spots, shorter narrations, phone messaging systems, e-learning projects (which can sometimes get as long as an audiobook) or videogame voices and it breaks up the recording and editing sessions into much shorter blocks. And, of course, those usually only involve being me.

What do you like best about your job?

That’s a hard one. What I think I’m most passionate about, though, is the variety of subject matter I get to read and learn about.

As a case in point, I had a week where I voiced the phone messaging system for The Hotels and Casinos of Monte Carlo; signed a contract to record a contemporary Christian romance audiobook called Come To Me Alive; narrated a series on medicinal marijuana; recorded pickups for a national infomercial for CamiShaper by Genie; and was the voice of Abraham’s 95-year-old wife Sara for a Biblical video game called Stained Glass. (I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered when they loved my audition for that one.)

Do you have any disasters you’d care to share?

Oh, many, but my clients are loyal and the only harm has been to my pride. On one of my very first audiobooks, a reviewer on Amazon said she couldn’t stand my voice and couldn’t listen to the rest of the book. Ouch. I later found everybody gets these occasionally, so I just worked on that thick-skin-sense-of-humor trait…but also modified a couple of things based on her other comments. I can learn from the nastiest of reviewers as well as the positive ones.

And, of course, I look back on some of my earlier work and cringe at things sometimes, but I do try to never stop growing and learning and honing my voice and my craft. I always learn from coaching sessions with Pat Fraley, Johnny Heller, Carol Monda, Marc Cashman, Paul Ruben and other narrators I really admire.

Next: juggling multiple personalities without going crazy.