Friday, June 17, 2011

Apollo Leadership Experience - Part 1

Next to the Saturn V. This one was slated for Apollo 18 before that mission was cancelled

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) and at the adjoining Space Center Houston (SCH) at a workshop titled The Apollo Leadership Experience. The program was hosted by The Conference Board, a non-profit organization providing in-depth research and best practices concerning management, leadership, and corporate citizenship. The company I work for is a member of The Conference Board. The Apollo Leadership Experience is one of their newest programs drawing on the leadership lessons of the manned space flight effort over the 10-year period of The Apollo Program. When this program was announced, at least six people at my company forwarded it to me knowing my interest in NASA and human spaceflight. I have participated in enough leadership and training programs to last a lifetime but this one was hard to turn down. It was about innovation (Saturn V, the Lunar Lander, the Lunar Rover), managing in a large organization and creating a culture of excellence (NASA), managing through a significant set back (Apollo 1), leadership and managing through a crisis (Apollo 13) and setting lofty goals and achieving them (Apollo 11). For those of you who know me... anyone would think that this two day program was created just for me and where I am in my professional career.

The folks at The Conference Board, especially Jeff Jackson and Dick Richardson really pulled together an amazing experience for all of us. From the NASA JSC side we had the undivided attention of four time Shuttle Astronaut Col. Terrence Wilcutt. Terry flew as pilot of STS-68 and STS-79 and as Commander of STS-89 and STS-106. He flew twice to MIR and once to the International Space Station (ISS). By the way, the folks at NASA refer to the ISS as "station". Also with us was Harv Hartman who served with NASA for 33 years and recently retired as Director of HR for JSC. He joined NASA during the Gemini program and stayed on until ISS. Can you imagine the stories he related. If I did not have a family and a job I would still be in Houston listening to him talk about NASA. Mathew Gray filled us with a ton of details on the ISS and just about any topic we presented him with. He is a Manager in the ISS Safety and Mission Assurance Branch. These people really care about NASA and human spaceflight. Amazing, amazing people and truly inspiring!

Our first topic was around innovation and the setting was the Rocket Park at JSC. We had a great discussion comparing "incremental" innovation versus "disruptive" innovation. Werner Von Bruan and team developed their rockets incrementally building bigger engines and bigger rockets going from the Redstone booster to the mighty Saturn V. We compared this type of innovation to what Tom Kelly and the Grumman Team did to develop the Lunar Lander. The design of the Lunar Lander broke all the traditional rules of aircraft design. For a good overview of the design process watch Episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon. You will see how these managers and engineers really had to think "outside the box". Eventually, the Lunar Lander had very small windows, no seats - the crew flew it standing up, a two stage design where the lower part of the spacecraft remained on the Moon and was used as a launch pad for the ascent stage. This discussion really made me think about my own R&D team because we need to incrementally improve our current product platforms but equally we need some break through thinking to come up with the next "disruptive technology".

Dick and Harv also presented some great insight on some of the key players during the Apollo era. They talked about the leadership styles of James Webb, Werner Von Braun, Tom Kelly, George Low,  and Harrison Storms. Wow! What great leaders they were. I wish we could go back in a time machine and see these great folks in action.

Several folks wanted to go visit the Astronaut Memorial Grove. First a little bit of history. The idea for the Astronaut Memorial Grove was spearheaded in 1996 by George Abbey, JSC director at the time, and then became a reality when seven live oak trees were planted in memory of the STS-51L crewmembers who perished 10 years earlier during the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. From that moment on, tree dedication ceremonies have been held in honor of every astronaut who has since departed this life.

We have lost a total of 17 astronauts (Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia) and I am sure all of you have read the harsh criticisms that NASA was complacent, or they did not care or was negligent. Let me tell you, the managers and engineers at NASA really care, and they put the the lives of their astronauts as the most important aspect of the mission. Everywhere you go you see the three mission patches of the missions where the crews were lost. From the Rocket Park, to the NLB to the JSC buildings.. they are NOT forgotten. There is a tradition in Mission Control where the mission patch of the "current" mission is placed by the door. After the mission is complete the most valuable contributor to the mission from mission control is selected to to place a ladder on the wall and the mission patch is "permanently" attached to the wall of Mission Control. This tradition dates back as far as anyone can remember. When we were looking in at the ISS Mission Control Center you can see all of the mission patches up on the wall, but the three mission patches where the crews did not return are still by the door. These people really care about the crews! It means everything to them.

We then stopped by at one of the JSC buildings for lunch. It was 100F outside but it felt like the sun had gone super nova. Yup, this is a really dedicated bunch of folks living in Houston. Meanwhile, it was 74F and blue skies in Southern California.

Jeff, Dick, Terry, Harv and Matt had a real treat for us at lunch time. Trnt Martin, "the project manager" for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) gave us a presentation on the program and status to date. Don't ask me what I had for lunch because I don't remember one bit. Martin's talk had me totally consumed.  I had blogged previously about the AMS but his inside scoop of this incredible instrument and pictures of it being installed on the ISS totally rocked! (Hmm, secretly I was imagining myself on a spacewalk installing it on the ISS). Here is my advice to all my readers. Go find all of your physics text books and get ready to throw them in the trash can (no, you cant donate them) because they are soon going to be obsolete. Our view of the universe is going to change very soon. With almost a billion particles going through the detector our views of antimatter and dark matter will change very quickly and our knowledge of the natural world will soon change. This is what these folks at NASA are doing. Our understanding of the Universe is going to change very soon. This is really exciting!

Next: the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (Part 2).

1 comment:

Trish said...

AWESOME report!!!
I cannot wait to read part II! but I think that it is you who should be teaching the course ...