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From USF to NASA in 17 days

USF was holding on to a late 2-1 lead in a September 1983 soccer match, when a University of Central Florida defender sent a screaming corner kick toward the back goalpost. With USF goalkeeper Martin Sheehan-Shephard tied up, junior midfielder Richard LaBrode saved the game for the Bulls, stepping up and sending the ball out of the box.

Less than two years later, with an electrical engineering degree in his pocket, he was, essentially, sending people to space.

LaBrode, who graduated from USF in 1985, took a job at NASA shortly thereafter.

He talks using lots of acronyms, mostly space-related, the non-abbreviated versions of which would likely be Greek to your average Joe. His wife dogs him about it.

But, in NASA’s hierarchy, he holds a lofty seat. Today, he is part of the elite group calling the shots on shuttle and space station missions.

It’s been a long time coming.

In 1984, LaBrode visited his father in Houston during Christmas Break of his senior year. His dad was working for Ford Aerospace, a corporation contracted by NASA to help run the shuttle program. While in Houston, LaBrode made some contacts, and, before he knew it, he was offered a job. He would start in the summer.

“All my dreams were coming true,” he recalled.

But there was a hitch.

LaBrode hadn’t yet accumulated the nine summer credit hours that are required for graduation.

But what seemed to be a damning impediment was, in the end, not a big deal. NASA could wait. Despite his delayed graduation, the job offer stood.

On July 1, 1985, LaBrode celebrated his 23rd birthday. Eleven days later, he walked across a stage wearing a cap and gown and received his diploma. Eight days later, he got married, and on July 29, he took a seat in the back room of a NASA control center.

“It was a heck of a month,” he said.

He sat in that room for six years, recording data off shuttles as they orbited Earth and operating the shuttles’ complex, on-board instrumentation systems.

In 1991, he became an information and communication officer. His job was to develop plans — sometimes a year in advance — for how all the shuttle’s systems would operate.

Thirty-one missions later, an inconceivable opportunity arose for LaBrode. In the past, NASA had only hired federal employees as flight director, its top position for shuttle missions and International Space Station operations. But, in 1998, it changed its policy and decided to allow contracted employees to apply, as well.

So LaBrode did.

“And by some stroke of fortune, I was the first flight director selected,” he said.

The then 36-year-old LaBrode was now one of just 54 people in the history of manned space flight to hold the office of flight director. Not bad for a former USF soccer player who graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a B average.

But the job isn’t easy. For the past four years he’s overseen operations of the ISS and was stationed in Russia in 2000, when the first ISS crew was sent up to space.

LaBrode says he’s a pretty laid back guy, but the responsibility of overseeing the operations of a program as massive as the space station is stressful.

“It’s a high-stress job,” he said. “But it’s unbelievably satisfying.”

On Feb. 1, his job went from redeeming to tragic.

LaBrode was working the console for the ISS. It was the late shift. He didn’t get off until 8 a.m. With the shuttle Columbia a half hour from landing, he got in his truck and began to drive home, hoping to see it fly overhead, as he had many times before. But it never did, and when LaBrode arrived at his home, he heard the horrible news.

Like many NASA employees, LaBrode was devastated by the Columbia accident. He was the chairman for a NASA operations board a few years back that included Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawna.

Fortunately for him, he’s been able to stay busy and live somewhat outside the chaos and subsequent media frenzy the tragedy caused.

After all, the shuttle disaster doesn’t mean operations at NASA stop. Especially on the ISS, which docked with a Russian supply ship Feb. 4.

Now, LaBrode and his NASA cohorts are faced with the problem of what to do with the three astronauts aboard the ISS, who are due back in March.

With the shuttle fleet now grounded indefinitely, he said workers are bending numbers and formulating hypotheses for what courses of action NASA will need to take in order to sustain the ISS astronauts longer than expected.

“We’re evaluating what we have to do,” he said. “How long can we last without a shuttle? What if the shuttle can fly in three months, six months, 12 months?”

Since the loss of Columbia, LaBrode has spoken to the astronauts aboard the ISS.

“When I talked to them, it was more about work-related items, but for the most part, they are doing extremely well,” LaBrode said. “Keeping them busy is very important.”

LaBrode said his team was able to patch in audio to the ISS of the Feb. 4 memorial services held at Johnson Space Center.

As for his theory on what brought Columbia down, he doesn’t have one.

“To be honest, I’ve listened to a lot of what folks have said, but there are so many possibilities, I don’t even want to speculate,” he said. “There are a lot of people putting together this puzzle. They’re going to solve this.”

LaBrode had been training to become flight director for future shuttle missions and was slotted to take the lead for April’s launch of STS-115, but with the shuttles grounded, he’ll have to hang tight.

Switching over from space station to space shuttle, though, excites him.

“It’ll be a nice change of pace,” he said.

As for USF, well, it’s been a while since LaBrode last set foot on campus.

In fact, he hasn’t been back since he graduated. But he has fond memories of the school, where he lived on campus. He admits, though, USF posed quite an academic challenge, as he had to work hard his final year to get his grades up.

“I was on the 5-year plan,” he joked.

Associate Editor Khari Williams contributed to this report