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Mullane Talks Teamwork - Former Astronaut Thanks Employees For Shuttle Contributions
November 4, 2010

Former astronaut Mike Mullane speaks to Dryden employees about teamwork during an Oct. 7 presentation at the center.Former astronaut Mike Mullane speaks to Dryden employees about teamwork during an Oct. 7 presentation at the center. (NASA Photo by Tony Landis)
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Former astronaut Mike Mullane, a veteran of three shuttle missions, gave his "Countdown to Teamwork" presentation in the ISF auditorium Oct. 7 as part of Dryden's Career Development Mentoring Program.

Mullane, selected as a mission specialist in 1978 in the first group of space shuttle astronauts, logged 356 hours in space aboard the orbiters Discovery (STS-41D) and Atlantis (STS-27 and 36) before retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1990. He has been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and is the recipient of many awards, including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit and the NASA Space Flight Medal.

At the outset of his talk, Mullane expressed gratitude for Dryden's contributions to the space shuttle program.

"Thanks for all that you've done to put America in space and to put me in space," he told center employees.

The author of "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut" (Scribner, 2006) shared personal experiences that ranged from humorous anecdotes of toilet malfunctions to the inspirational story of how he made his youthful dreams of spaceflight come true. Describing the combination of fear and wonderment astronauts experience during a shuttle launch, Mullane said, "At the same time we're terrified, we're also boundlessly joyful."

The main thrust of the presentation included an overview of the fundamentals of teamwork and some of the obstacles faced by organizations such as NASA. Mullane was candid in sharing his opinions about missteps that led to the losses of two space shuttle orbiters, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

He defined three fundamental elements of teamwork. First, he emphasized the need for every member of a team to take responsibility for his or her actions and be fully invested in team goals at all times.

"When you see a problem and don't say anything, you cease to be a team member and become a passenger," he said.

Second, he recommended that each team member exercise "courageous self-leadership." He pointed out that team members should not hesitate to speak up simply because of lack of seniority, reluctance to confront others or fear of reprisal.

"A good leader empowers the team members. Everybody counts."

Finally, he warned against a tendency to normalize even the smallest deviance from prescribed procedures. He urged everyone to recognize that they are vulnerable to false feedback and the temptation to deviate from established standards. The strength of Mullane's advice lay in his common-sense approach.

"Maintain situational awareness and think ahead. Plan the work and work the plan. Be extraordinarily vigilant when altering standards, because they were established for a reason."

Mullane used the Challenger disaster as an example of normalization of deviance - acceptance of events that are not supposed to happen - caused by false feedback. The spacecraft was lost 73 seconds after launch due to a catastrophic failure caused by a damaged rubber O-ring in a seal between segments of a reusable solid-fueled rocket booster. Schedule pressure that precipitated a launch under adverse temperature conditions was also considered a factor in the accident.

Mullane said that inspections of O-rings from the previous 24 shuttle flights revealed 14 instances of damage.

"If you deviate from standards and nothing bad happens," he said, "the absence of bad consequences makes you think it is safe to deviate."

Referencing the conditions that preceded the final flight of Challenger, he noted, "In a no-pressure situation [earlier in the program], O-ring damage was deemed intolerable but under intense schedule pressure it was expected."

Rather than alerting officials to a serious problem, it lulled them into a false sense of security.

Emphasizing the importance of learning from past experience, Mullane suggested that organizations should archive and review case studies of near misses and disasters. He said that the loss of the orbiter Columbia resulted in part from a loss of corporate memory. Schedule pressure once again eclipsed safety concerns.

During the final launch of Columbia, foam debris from the external fuel tank struck the leading edge of the orbiter's wing, causing damage that resulted in catastrophic failure during re-entry. Previous foam strikes over the preceding 22 years of shuttle operations had occasionally caused significant damage but had not been serious enough to result in a catastrophe. As a result, such incidents were considered simply a normal maintenance issue rather than a safety-of-flight issue.

Mullane suggested that effective teamwork and leadership are key to avoiding future mishaps. Concluding with a return to his philosophy of self-leadership, Mullane used his own life story as an example.

Noting that he had not seemed destined for great success, he said he had not been a child prodigy. He wasn't a sports star, he said, wasn't popular, and didn't date the homecoming queen. Yet he realized his lifetime dream of becoming an astronaut because of leaders (parents, teachers, etc.) who saw his potential and fostered his inner motivational drive. He emphasized that self-leaders set lofty goals, stay focused on what's important, and constantly strive do their best.

"Success isn't a destination. It's a continuous life journey of working toward successively higher goals."

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