Wednesday, February 01, 2006

More on the space shuttle...

Astronaut Mike Mullane (referred to in an earlier post) has distanced himself from the article that called the shuttle a 'deathtrap', stating he was misquoted. That said, he re-inforced his comment that NASA culture discouraged freedom.

I mentioned in an earlier post that astronauts worry about things like job security. I was wrong, because Mike says they don't. He says it goes way beyond job security - it goes into the very heart of who they are, the very reason for their existence. In that sense, the stakes are even higher and hence, astronauts are even less likely to say what they feel. Here's what Mike had to say (taken from a discussion thread at

(Excerpt from Riding Rockets, The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, Scribner, copyright 2006 by Mike Mullane.) “Astronaut concerns about the shuttle’s “operational” label, the lack of an escape system and the passenger program should have been heard by every key manager, from Abbey to the JSC Center Director to the NASA Administrator. But they were not. We were terrified of saying anything that might jeopardize our place in the line into space. We were not like normal men and women who worried about the financial aspects of losing a job, of not being able to make the mortgage payment or pay the kids’ tuition. We feared losing a dream, of losing the very thing that made us us. When it came to our careers, we were risk adverse in the extreme. Effective leaders would have done everything possible to eradicate that fear. George Abbey, the JSC Director and the NASA Administrator all should have been frequent visitors to the astronaut office actively polling our concerns and each visit should have started with these or similarly empowering words, “There is nothing you can say to me that will jeopardize your place in the mission line. Nothing! If you think I’m doing something crazy, I want to hear it.” I had experienced this form of leadership many times in my Air Force career. I saw it during an F-4 mission with a General officer. I was a 1st Lieutenant—and terrified. I had never flown with a Flag officer before. But this man was a leader who understood how fear could jeopardize the team and did his best to eliminate it. As my foot touched the cockpit ladder, the General stopped me and said, “See these stars,” and pointed to his shoulder. “If I make a mistake they won’t save our lives. If you see anything that doesn’t look right on this flight, tell me. There’s no rank in this jet. Flying is dangerous enough as it is without having crewmembers afraid to speak up.” It was an empowering moment. The astronaut office desperately needed the same empowering moments, but they never came. Fear ruled—a fear rooted in Abbey’s continuing secrecy on all things associated with flight assignments. We kept our mouths shut.” [sentences in bold - emphasis mine].

Mike states that he is not criticising the current NASA administration, but the pre-challenger one. The tragic part is that it took two shuttle disasters to get NASA to sit up and take notice. Again, as I keep stating, the system needs to change. Otherwise, we're going to get more disasters, until we get that message.

(Please email me your comments at