Our SpaceFlight Heritage: One-on-One with NASA’s George Diller
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Anyone who has watched NASA launch astronauts on the agency’s fleet of shuttle orbiters, or as planetary missions left Earth for distant points out in the Solar System and thrilled as they heard the countdown reach zero, is probably familiar with George Diller (even if they don’t know it). Diller, in his role as a public affairs officer, has been the voice that has announced the beginning of many journeys beyond our world – both crewed and automated. That time, however, is drawing to a close.
Diller announced during the pre-launch activities of the OA-7 mission on April 18, 2017, that he would be retiring from NASA, closing out a career that has spanned more than three decades. SpaceFlight Insider spoke with Diller about how he got started with the agency, about some of the highlights of his career, and what he would do after he leaves NASA.
SpaceFlight Insider: Starting off, can you give our readers a bit of a background as to how you got started in the journalism or public relations business overall and then talk about how that progressed to you working with NASA?
Diller: “I frankly grew up at a radio station. It was my first job right after school, working at a radio station in Clearwater, Florida, in the Tampa Bay area. And actually, over the course of time I worked at that radio station over 11 years, all the way through college and after graduation, they hired me as the FM operations manager. And then I went back to school, got another degree, but still kept working at the station, and then worked at two other stations in the meantime: the University of South Florida station and another commercial FM station downtown, so at one time I was working for three different radio stations at the same time.
“So there wasn’t much as far as nights or weekends. I was always working, but the good thing was that the Clearwater station – I started covering Apollo 17 with them – and did ASTP (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and then Viking and Voyager and some other missions.
“The reason our station kept covering was after Apollo, a lot of stations in the Tampa Bay area kind of quit covering it. There weren’t any more missions to the Moon, and they thought, ‘Where’s the interest?’ Our station felt differently. If we were the only station in the Tampa Bay area to cover Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, and there were a lot of exciting launches, we thought, going on there – particularly Viking and Voyager at the time – so we kept right covering. I could have carved a rut back and forth between Cape Canaveral and Clearwater going back and forth across the state.
“It was during the latter part of that when they began to hire at Kennedy Space Center as part of the build-up for the Space Shuttle Program. They added two positions, one of which I got, one of which I didn’t, but I’d kind of fallen in love with the space program and had a chance to work here, it didn’t make any difference exactly what it was, as long as I was going to be working at the Cape. I worked for four years as a NASA contractor on the Public Affairs support contract. Then hopped the fence and went over to the NASA civil service side and continued on throughout the whole Shuttle program, and I think that’s probably one of the things I’m proudest of, is that I was here for the first Space Shuttle launch and I was here for the last one, all the way through the Shuttle program, end to end. And there aren’t too many employees that can say that they were around for the whole 135 launches.”
SpaceFlight Insider: That’s a nice segue to our next question. When the public thinks of the launches and other events, they think of your voice. Your voice is the one they heard. Was that always the case? Were you always working on the launch side of things, providing the coverage from the crewed missions to the launches NASA does for the rovers, probes, and satellites, or have there been other jobs that you filled along the way as part of being a PAO [Public Affairs Officer] with NASA?
Diller: “It kind of started with me, besides doing a lot of writing for Public Affairs, I also voiced a lot of things that NASA produced in association with the different launches and missions. The launch commentary aspect didn’t start until – I think late ’84 or early 1985. It took me through a lot of the unmanned missions, but my Space Shuttle commentary missions didn’t start until STS-27, and that was because Hugh Harris was promoted. So they needed another launch commentator, and that’s kind of how I got started, back on STS-27, and went ahead doing those.
“Really, the main role that I have served here [for] most of my tenure with the agency is to work on all of the missions that went to the planets. I did all ten Mars missions as well as Galileo, Cassini. Oh, and I did the mission to Mercury recently – the Venus flight. Most of the ones that I felt like I wanted to work those missions and a lot of those were on the unmanned launch vehicles, expendable vehicles. Those have the sexy payloads. We did those on Shuttle for a while, but we transitioned after the Challenger mishap. They put most of those back on the unmanned rockets, and the centerpiece of my interest has those launches because of the kind of spacecraft that were on them.
“So while I’ve certainly had a significant role in Shuttle, my lead role was as the lead Public Affairs Officer for all the planetary and astrophysics missions. And that has been a tremendous amount of fun. I mean, for me to be working those missions that would actually have me in the spacecraft high bay with the spacecraft being five feet away from something that was going to another planet, I mean that was the highest calling. And that’s what’s made that so fun. It’s been great, and Shuttle was wonderful, some of those missions, and to work with some of the astronauts, but when I look back on what I’ve really enjoyed the most, it would be working some of these planetary spacecraft.”
SpaceFlight Insider: That brings up another question. Could you choose the missions you worked or was there a rotation? How much say-so did you have in selecting the missions that you would work?
Diller: “As far as the ones where I was lead, and any of the vehicles that were under our Expendable Vehicles Directorate or Launch Services Program I was the lead Public Affairs Officer for. That didn’t necessarily mean I did the launch commentary for NASA Television for all of those. Those we kind of rotated to some extent through the office, although somehow by happenstance I seemed to work most of them that way. Being the lead on expendable vehicles is really what allowed me to have the most contact with all of the exciting planetary spacecraft that come through Kennedy.”
SpaceFlight Insider: A number of folks that have retired from the agency still go on to volunteer, and if I understand this correctly, your retirement date is in May, is that correct?
Diller: “May 31 is my swan song.”
SpaceFlight Insider: When May 31 hits and the missions after that, will you volunteer and still come out?
Diller: “Probably not because I’m leaving the area. I’m moving to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The reason for that is I went to school in Vermont and I have relatives in New Hampshire and then Boston. And way back in 1973, I was able to acquire about ten acres of land from a family member, and it’s right on a lake on a hillside in the foothills of the White Mountains. I always thought, ‘Well, one of these days, one of these years, I’m going to be able to retire, I expect, and I’m going to be able to go up and build something.’ So that’s what I need to do. That’s what my plan is when I want to retire. I’ve got to do some renovations on my condominium in Titusville, and as soon as that’s over, I’ll go put it on the market and sell and move up to the mountains.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.