Interview ~ A conversation with Kwatsi Alibaruho NASA’s first black flight Director

Posted June 22, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 9,000 views


By Ronnie Mayanja | Editor, UNAA Times ~ The first time I ever heard of the name – Kwatsi Alibaruho, was when I picked up a copy of Ebony Magazine (one of the leading publications for African Americans in the USA) from a newstand in 2005. The magazine had ranked him among the most influential black people in the USA at that time and as I read the article, I was particularly drawn to the name that sounded more African and Ugandan in particular.

But who is this accomplished gentlemen whose life’s story could very easily fit a hollywood movie script? The following is my conversation with him, six years after that chanced encounter in Ebony Magazine.

Born and raised in the US, Kwatsi Alibaruho is the son of Ugandan economist Dr. George and Dr. Gloria Alibaruho of Macon, Georgia. The Alibaruho’s were forced to flee Uganda soon after General Idi Amin Dada assumed the presidency of Uganda in what became one of the darkest history of Uganda’s turbulent past. A year later in May 1972, Kwatsi Alibaruho was born.

18 March 2009 ~ ISS Orbit 1 lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho monitors data at his console in the space station flight control room in the Mission Control Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center during STS-119 flight day four activities.

At age 2, his parents divorced and Kwatsi was raised by his mother who helped guide and direct his career. Kwatsi recalls “My mother always bought me elementary science books after realising my passion for space and science fiction programs. She grounded me and taught me never to expect less in life. I knew I had to have the willingness to work especially given the value my parents attached to a good quality education. They really invested in my education” he recalls.

By fourth and fifth grade Kwatsi recalls he knew he wanted a career in space engineering at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT provided perhaps the best opportunity for him to realise his dream. As a competitive University, he started off with a Grade Point Average [GPA] of about 3.96 and a Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] or reasoning test scores of 1420. He recalls working very hard to perform at this level in order to obtain the grades and also attended summer school in order to further his knowledge of science. In his freshman year there were 1200 students in his class.

The International Space Station as seen from space

Initially he had started off as a Computer Science major but realised this was not a right fit for him. So in his junior year, he switched to the School of Avionics and Aerospace engineering. In 1993 he was one of two individuals that were selected to join NASA’s internship program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s here that he was later hired, working his way up from a Flight Controller to a Flight Director. After completing more than 700 hours in 2005, Mr. Alibaruho was certified becoming the very first African American to hold this position as lead mission control director breaking the color barrier.

Discovery's STS-133 crew portrait in front of the astronaut van on the morning of February 24 prior to departing for the launch pad. Bowen is third from the right. Credit: John Tylko

Leading a team of flight controllers, support personnel and engineering experts, a flight director has the overall responsibility to manage and carry out space shuttle flights and International space station expeditions. A flight director also leads and orchestrates planning and integration activities with flight controllers, payload customers, space station partners and others. [Source NASA news.]

20 March 2009 ~ The members of the STS-119/15A ISS Orbit 1 flight control team pose for a group portrait in the space station flight control room in the Mission Control Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho (right) is visible on the front row.

Inspite of a relative absence of people of color in the industry, Kwatsi says that NASA respected the proficiency and skills he brought to the job. ‘I was good at my job and I demonstrated the proficiencies that allowed me to excel purely on merit’, says Kwatsi.

Kwatsi has been married for 15 years to Macresia Alibaruho a Communications and Data systems supervisor who works in Flight operations at NASA and together they have a 5 year old son Mitchel Alibaruho Atkunda.

Kawtsi’s father George is now retired and lives in Kampala, Uganda. Although Kwatsi is Ugandan, due to his busy schedule he has only managed to go to Uganda twice in the past 12 years. Last year he took his wife and son to Uganda for a 3 weeks holiday. He however maintains contact with many of relatives back in Uganda.

27 Aug. 2006 ~The members of the STS-115/12A ISS Orbit 3 flight control team pose for a group portrait in the Station (Blue) Flight Control Room of Houston's Mission Control Center (MCC). Flight director Kwatsi L. Alibaruho is on the front row center.

Asked how he saw Uganda on his last visit, Kwatsi says: “As an outsider I have observed that Uganda has made tremendous strides from the Amin era. The Uganda government has kept the peace and maintained stability. However the country could benefit from an infusion of new ideas and infrastructural development.”

This year Mr. Alibaruho will be joining other Ugandans in the mile high city of Denver as they attend the 23rd annual UNAA Convention where he will present the keynote address. He sees this as an opportunity to interact with his fellow countrymen by sharing his life’s story and inspiring others to attain their maximum potential.

4 Sept. 2009 ~ The members of the STS-128 Orbit 2 flight control team pose for a group portrait in the space shuttle flight control room in the Mission Control Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho (second left) is visible on the front row.

When not working at NASA, Kwatsi who is also an ordained Church minister, works as the head of the volunteer staff at his church where he is also involved in the Children’s ministry.

On how he would prefer to be remembered, this great son of Africa with roots in Uganda says ‘I would rather be remembered as a Christian who loved his country and his family’. He also believes that God has a purpose and good intentions for each and every one of us.

Mr. Kwatsi Alibaruho is a recipient of numerous awards including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, 2009, and the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement Stellar Award.

STS 128 was an American shuttle craft carrying six astronauts and 12.36 tonnes of supplies for the International Space Station

Kwatsi is to be honored on December 29th, at the Ugandan Diaspora Social Networking Event taking place at Serena Hotel. You can read more about Kwatsi at the Ugandan Diaspora Recognition Website:

About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.



    Great, I heard of a ugandan there sometime back, i guess he was the one…great achievements…no small feat.

    Christine Semambo Sempebwa

    What a great church minister. God indeed is great. May All glory return to him!


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