Excerpt from LIFTOFF: An Astronaut Commander’s Countdown for Purpose-Powered Leadership by Astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander, Colonel Rick Searfoss Taken from Chapter One, Propel Accountability for Results
Staying Alive at Mach 18
It was close to midnight. I was exhausted after a sixteen-hour day that had wrapped up with a four-hour simulator session. I needed to vent just a little. “Hey, Chili, that sim went great. We’re way up on the step. Can’t we get the training team to back off just a little?” With an all-veteran crew and months to go until launch, we were well ahead, practically ready to fly right then.
Kevin Chilton, our wise commander, answered, “No, sorry, but we’re going to take every single chance we can to keep getting better.” His principled response was the product of his deep sense of accountability as commander to make certain his crew was absolutely ready for every possible contingency on launch day. Nodding, I replied, “I know, I know. Let me get some sleep and I’ll be ready to hit it hard again tomorrow.”
In the last few months before a launch, an astronaut crew lives and breathes virtually nothing except the upcoming mission. One-hundred-plus-hour work weeks are not uncommon and the pace is brutal. The PAPA elements of preparation and persistence predominate because of the supreme need to raise our awareness and skills to the very high standards to which we are held accountable.
Fast forward three months to 3:20 a.m. on March 17, 1996, about 150 miles abeam North Carolina, 360,000 feet high. We’re headed northeast in Atlantis at over 12,000 miles per hour, approaching eighteen times the speed of sound. I’m a happy rocket man. The three main engines, my systems since I’m in the right seat, purr along splendidly. We’re just about to throttle back so we don’t exceed 3 “Gs” of acceleration. Sure, we all weigh nearly three times normal, but the seats are well padded, and there’s no need to get up and run around. Pretty nice ride, as long as you don’t think too much about how you might die doing it. Everything’s great—until instantly it isn’t!
Suddenly the annoyingly loud warning alarm bleats out and our systems display starts blinking its “HYD PRESS LOW” message. A fraction of a second later our ascent CAPCOM, another pilot astronaut in Mission Control, calls, “Atlantis, we show a system-three hydraulic leak. P-L-T, execute Hydraulic Leak procedure.” I verify the onboard data. Sure enough, hydraulic fluid is draining like an open spillway at Hoover Dam. Confirming with Chili, I say, “I show system three.” He concurs. It’s over to the hydraulics panel by my right knee.
Wearing bulky multilayer pressure suit gloves, I gingerly reach for the correct switch. Lined up in a row, each of the three hydraulic system isolation switches is only about an inch apart. Big glove or not, better grab the correct one, and only one. If I shut down the wrong system, we all die. The “power steering” for Atlantis—hydraulically driven engine bells—works fine with two systems, but not with just one. With fluid lost in one system, an incorrect isolation of either remaining system means game over. Corkscrewing through the sky while out of control at twenty times the speed of sound is not how I want to end my day—or my life. After that most critical first step, I quickly complete the rest of the procedure.
Though potentially just an inch away from dying, we were in reality a long way from that outcome. I had performed that same procedure hundreds of times in high-fidelity simulators, even wearing the exact same type gloves. It was so ingrained in my mind that I could’ve done it in my sleep. In fact, occasionally during the intense training, I dreamed of handling various emergencies. Pretty effective use of time to train in your dreams! I don’t think my heart rate even increased while executing what I’d been so prepared to do. In the heat of that battle, I felt acutely aware of every single thing going on. The preparation had given me vigilant situational awareness, but that preparation had required the persistence to “keep getting better” in those many long, often late-night simulations.
After we reached main engine cutoff (MECO) a minute later it really struck me what had just transpired. Now weightless, the hydraulic problem handled correctly, and the adrenaline jolt over, my nerves felt free to jangle a bit. My heart rate did go up then as I pondered that this time it was no simulation. I truly was accountable to my crewmates, their families, NASA, and the American taxpayer. I said a short prayer of thanks that I had come through and taken good care of Atlantis when she started “bleeding.” We could all thank an obsessively persistent training philosophy and a commander relentlessly leading his team to operational excellence. I was grateful too for living and working in a team culture of personal accountability that spurred each of us on to our absolute best.
Had I executed incorrectly, the STS-76 crew and I would not be alive today, nor would Atlantis now be on display at Kennedy Space Center. We would’ve all ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, we completed a full mission and returned home safely to our families. Chances are you’ve never heard of this situation, one of the more serious ascent emergencies ever in the Space Shuttle Program. That’s fine, and it’s a great tribute to NASA’s robust crew-training system that we made it look like a nonevent. The successful resolution of this operational challenge required absolutely perfect execution. It highlights every element of the PAPA Effective Execution System: Preparation, Awareness, Persistence, and Accountability, all applied with real urgency toward a focused objective. In this case the objective was a dramatically compelling one: staying alive and preserving a multibillion-dollar national asset.
Anyone, to perform at the very highest level, must resolutely hold themselves accountable for results and continuous improvement. Trials and difficulties are inevitable. Emergencies, or as NASA euphemistically calls them, “off-nominal situations,” happen. True leaders always set the example of how to deal with such challenges. They build awareness and capability through preparation, exercise their willpower in persistence, and model a dedication to accountability. That accountability ethos consolidates effective execution and advances the team to the next level. Then leaders and the team begin another orbit around the PAPA system while continuing to focus attention on the objectives below.
The dynamic world of military aviation and the astronaut business impose instant accountability. Conditions can go from normal to disastrous instantaneously. If you fall short, the first indication may be a fireball from a midair collision or smacking into a mountain. This reality requires an attitude of constantly trapping errors and holding each other strictly accountable, as quickly as possible. The environment dictates a culture of real-time accountability. The linchpin of such a culture is the willingness to accept critiques and take immediate action to fix problems.
Within any team, multiple levels of group and individual accountability exist. Laws, ethical standards, and regulatory impositions make us answerable on one level. Company policies determine another set of standards. If we assume that a given team understands and complies with all the externally imposed requirements, what’s left? The two main areas of near real-time accountability are shared group accountability and individuals answering to each other for their own work.
The first, shared team accountability, relates to overall results and the organization itself. A truly high-performing team will incorporate systems to ensure a given work package, project, or operation gets done. With clarity and decisiveness, such a team will assess objective accomplishment and fix the shortfalls. To best do so, the team itself has to have authority to define most of the parameters of its structure, organization, and workflow. Beyond general “what” guidelines, the “how” details should be left to the team itself. Leaders should not generally prescribe detailed methods, but should focus on desired results.
In practice, shared team accountability is potentially problematic. If everyone is responsible, then maybe no one can really be held responsible. Remember the belly button? It’s a conundrum without an easy answer. An effective way to avoid this trap is to consider shared team accountability as the multiple of inter-team trust times the sum of individual team members’ buy-in to personal accountability. Accordingly, keep focusing on expanding trust while also building the nodes of people who step up and answer for their performance. Much like individual trustworthiness prefaces the first-order team trust requirement, stand-up people willing to take action and accept consequences build a shared group accountability culture.
Many previously discussed principles contribute to people standing up as highly accountable individuals. Trust, removing fear of punishment for honest mistakes, transparent standards and leaders, and a service-to-others outlook all help. The ideal team member will comfortably operate within a trusting framework to instantly accept and act upon valid constructive criticism. Furthermore, everyone will tactfully but frankly offer those critiques to others for the good of the team.
In the perfect shared-accountability team, no offense is ever intended, none ever taken, and all is for the good of mission accomplishment. Accountability culture is a powerful multiplier. Another related accountability enhancer is to always follow through.Buy the Book Now!