“To always be aware that suddenly & unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.” – Foundations of Mission Operations, NASA
January 27, 1967. The Apollo 1 Fire. In 29 seconds, three astronauts died of asphyxiation. It was a defining moment for NASA.
Out of that moment came the heavy responsibility of breaking the news to the families, facing the public, owning up to mistakes made and yet, somehow, moving forward towards the goal. Today, it is our duty to not simply recall the tragedy and mourn with the survivors but to be better, do better, and continue to strive towards excellence.
Space is unforgiving. Any error, no matter how small can mean death. Space flight is inherently contradictory – demanding both perfection and great risk. When perfection is the goal, what risks are you willing to take that you would not have otherwise? I don’t mean just the risks of space flight, but our personal risk as leaders. We must be careful to lace together the high calling of perfection with the call to take personal risk in speaking the truth and requiring accountability from ourselves and others. This often means putting aside our pride and admitting mistakes and pointing out issues with “common sense” assumptions. Speak truth to power.
Lesson 1: Success Breeds Complacency, Complacency Breeds Mistakes
Prior to the Apollo 1 Fire, nineteen Americans had flown in space, seven of them had flown twice. This was an unprecedented success. When we are successful, there is great danger of our pride steeping in that success and becoming rancid. Pride of success quickly breeds complacency and complacency leads to mistakes. Then, there is the slippery slope. The road diverges with that first small mistake: do you own up to it or do you slough it off and keep pressing towards a false perfection? Not facing that first small mistake is actually big mistake.
Lesson 2: In Times of Stress the Best Leaders Will Emerge
Stories of heroes mark literature throughout the world. We long to see others step up in times of distress and overcome challenges, rescue the afflicted and right the wrong. These stories, like the true stories of NASA’s leaders who pulled the organization out of a potential tailspin, inspire us and teach us to be prepared when challenges come our way. And it is when we face difficulties that our best – or worst – qualities will emerge.
Lesson 3: Leaders Must Be Diligent and Prepared
Data breaches, product recalls, natural disasters, manmade disasters. It is almost impossible that you won’t not face challenges in your career. So, if challenges are unavoidable the real question is whether we’re prepared to respond.
Preparation does not happen overnight. Some of it happens in the classroom or in conversations with our mentors and colleagues. But most preparation happens with every small decision you make every day. In order to be prepared and pull our team and organization out of moments of crisis, we must be the right people at our core. Good character must guide our everyday decisions which will be the best preparation for pulling ourselves and our teams out of crisis. We also must practice. Astronauts practice for space walks. Athletes practice for competition. We must anticipate and practice for the challenges yet to come.
The Apollo 1 Fire held the possibility of debilitating NASA. Many questioned why we were spending money and people’s lives for a dream. I could have broken NASA’s leaders’ pride, drive, and passion for space flight. Those leaders could have hidden behind the technical complexity of their jobs, the risks inherent in space flight, and blamed one another for the tragedy. Yet, because of the resolve and character of the leaders (Kranz, Webb, Seamans, and many others) that pulled NASA out of this tragedy, this moment proved to define who NASA would be every day hence.
Yes, there were other tragedies, possibly rooted in the same false perceptions that created the cultural environment for the Apollo 1 Fire. However, NASA has never been the same and they became better scientists, better coworkers, and better people because of this tragedy. To learn more see our Apollo Experience.