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30 years on: Lessons from Challenger

by | Jan 24, 2016

30 years on: Lessons from Challenger

STS-51LIt’s hard to believe that it was 30 years ago, on January 28, 1986, that the crew of STS-51L were lost on a cold winter morning as the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed from an avoidable sequence of errors, both technical and human.

I’ve blogged before about the events of that morning from my perspective, fresh out of college and starting my life’s dream of working with NASA. Little did I know how much that one event would serve as a springboard for so much of my life, creating ripples in the pond of my existence – personally and professionally.

We don’t really need to go over the technical details of the Accident. The specifics of the design flaws, the clearly-missed warning signs, and the well-out-of-bounds launch conditions were all there, in perfect 20/20 hindsight… and, to be perfectly honest, even 30 years later, it’s really tough for me to watch those videos.

At its core, though — spaceflight, and especially manned spaceflight, is an unforgiving field. The consequences for failure are immediate and often spectacular, with the results that can lead to the loss of vehicle and crew.

Being a part of that recovery period and the eventual Return-to-Flight provided some lifelong lessons that still resonate today. So, let’s talk about it in that frame of reference…


Mission Operations logoOutside of the Mission Control Center (MCC), from the early days of the program, hangs a plaque on The Foundations of Mission Operations (aka “The Flight Controller’s Creed”). As part of my training as a Flight Dynamics Officer, it was insisted upon each of us that we learn, and subsequently live, these as guidelines for every action we took in the MCC.

As it turns out, they became life lessons far beyond our brief, albeit intense, lives supporting manned spaceflight operations.

Looking at each one of these, with the reflection of the last 30 years as my mirror, shows how much each of these tenets truly speaks to a sense of duty, responsibility, and self-awareness that each of us are not only the masters of our own destiny, but also that our actions have such far-reaching impacts on others.

Tough and Competent

1. To instill within ourselves these qualities essential to professional excellence:

Professional excellence leads to, in my opinion and experience, a personal excellence that is mandatory for a complete life experience. The qualities, listed below, were forged by the early leaders of Mission Control and honed by a white-hot fire in what Gene Kranz called the “Leadership Laboratory” of Mission Control.

Discipline – Being able to follow as well as to lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.

Gene Kranz at MCC Flight Director Console

Gene Kranz at MCC Flight Director Console

Without self-discipline, there is chaos. By knowing when it is time to contribute your critical part of the puzzle and when it is time to direct others in a common objective, you can derive satisfaction in the overall success of your associates.

I’ve translated this, personally, into my “second career” after the Shuttle Program as a Project Management Consultant. I’ve now had more years as a PM than I actually did in the Trench!

But, that discipline of knowing when to lead the team, and when to allow the team to excel in each of their own individual strengths, has been crucial in my life.

Competence – There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.

MCC - Flight Control Room 1

MCC – Flight Control Room 1

“Just getting by” was never going to be an acceptable path when dealing with spaceflight. If you were not prepared, you would be exposed – whether it was from a lack of ability to perform your critical duties, not having the confidence in your craft, or (even worse) not knowing how to handle the unexpected.

We would train for many times longer than the actual spaceflight event would take, in order to guarantee that our competence was honed to a razor-sharp edge. If you were not deemed competent, then you would not be allowed to step foot into that hallowed cathedral of spaceflight operations.

Again, this has translated into my personal and professional lives directly by not ever accepting mediocrity. The old adage of “a job worth doing, is a job worth doing well” rings true.

Confidence – Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.

We were a confident bunch.

We were a confident bunch.

It was often said, not only of me (ha!) but of all of us who were blessed to work in Mission Control, that we were a cocky bunch, with over-confidence oozing from our very pores. I would counter that with a reaction that anything *less* than a strong self-confidence (which also lead to a strong self-awareness of our limitations) was dangerous and limiting.

If we weren’t confident in ourselves, how could others be confident in us? That *CANNOT*, however, lead to a false sense of ability. Confidence without competence is a recipe for disaster … and was quickly weeded out.

Responsibility – Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do — or fail to do.

Roger - at the FDO console

Roger – at the FDO console

Actions have consequences. Responsibility for your actions also means responsibilities for the results. And failure to take action is, in and of itself, can also have consequences for which you can be held responsible!

Awareness of this, acceptance that you cannot shift your responsibilities to someone else, and being willing to stand up for the end results of what you have or have not done is critical to being a successful person, both personally and professionally.

Toughness – Taking a stand when we must; to try again, even if it means following a more difficult path.

Jay Greene - STS-51L Ascent Flight Director

Jay Greene – STS-51L Ascent Flight Director

Life isn’t always easy. Taking the easy path isn’t always right. Sometimes it’s mandatory to show a spine and a toughness in the face of adversity, even if at the time it feels like it may not be worth it.

When you know, deep down, that the path you are taking is the right one, then showing that fortitude and toughness will eventually work in your favor. This lesson has proven itself, time and again, in both aspects of my life, personal and professional. The willingness to stand your ground for what is right and true will reflect through your personality and others will gravitate towards it.

This is often the most difficult thing to do, and probably one that I fail at more than I want to admit.

Teamwork – Respecting and utilizing the abilities of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends upon the efforts of all.

There’s nothing more satisfying than a team accomplishment. Individual accolades are nice enough, but sharing both the struggles and more importantly the successful resolution and delivery of projects with a team is even nicer.


This plays well into personal matters, too. My core “team” is my immediate family, and working with my wife and kids towards these memories and successful events that we’ve shared over the years, each of us contributing in ways that are unique to our own talents and skills, has really forged bonds that will never be broken. It is critical to recognize those individual contributions, otherwise they eventually stop – that’s just human nature.

Ultimate Consequences

2. To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia memorial emblemAt NASA, we learned this with Challenger, 30 years ago… with Columbia 13 years ago… and with Apollo 1 almost 50 years ago (next year).

That stark reminder of the consequences of our actions, and the critical and often immediate impacts of what roles we play, has stuck with me as a core value throughout my entire life.

My professional career has spanned responsibilities from Space Shuttle crewmembers to tip-of-the-spear Warfighters, but my greatest awareness of impact has been to my family.

Knowing that the decisions I make, the actions I take, but most importantly, the success, health, and happiness of my family requires that performance in all aspects of life has to revolve around them!

Failure *is* an option sometimes

3. To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

Failure Is Not An Option“Failure is not an option” is an oft-used phrase describing the Apollo 13 events and Mission Control in general… but, failure is an unavoidable part of human existence.

As much as any person can prepare for events, there will always be times when external events just prevent success. Of course, with any failure comes the opportunity to learn from that mistake and equally important – to not make that same mistake again. Repeating mistakes, while that may occur more than we want to see, has to be avoided.

During our Shuttle mission simulations, we would often be thrown into situations where we would almost certainly make mistakes. Experiencing and recognizing those failures, but then learning what we did and how to not repeat them in the future made the actual missions so successful. Not only had we seen so many failure scenarios during training, but we also had learned the critical evaluation and recognition skills to help prepare us avoid them in real-time.

ErrorChainAnother key piece of “mistake avoidance” is to recognize the classic “error chain” often taught in cockpit resource management training. That is, (1) avoid the error to begin with, (2) trap the error, once recognized, and (3) mitigate the impacts of any errors that may be unavoidable for various reasons. During any failure scenarios, it can often be broken down into a series of root causes (aka, “links in the chain”). If you can just break one link, you can often turn the tide in your favor from failure to success.

This made the Risk Mitigation portion of Project Management so straight-forward and simple for me, as I’d been trained relentlessly in this technique.

STSOC Return to Flight bumper sticker

The “greatest error” referenced in this statement truly does refer to doing your best… which means, of course, preparing for the task at hand, thinking about possible risks and issues (and then mitigating them!), and ultimately providing the best effort possible for every thing placed in front of you. Work ethic, professionally and personally, must be something to be proud of.

In conclusion

Challenger debrisRealizing how much individual events can shape your life is not always an immediate understanding.

Sometimes it takes awhile to recognize how much the impacts of one or more events become interwoven into the very structure and fabric of your life.

The Foundations of Mission Operations is an excellent set of guidelines that, while originally intended as a continuous dedication of Mission Control Center Flight Control teams to the job of managing manned spaceflight, has become applicable to every phase of my life, both professionally and personally.

I find myself remembering them at various times and still strive to meet the lofty expectations they laid out for me.

Although it’s been 30 years now, those Lessons from Challenger are still resonating with me.

I would love to hear yours… drop me a line or comment below.

Husband, father, Space Cadet, techno-geek…
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