Mike Mullane

NASA Astronaut

Colonel Mike Mullane accounts of his three space missions are gripping―a difficult takeoff, the shift into zero gravity, and his first view of the Earth from space. In his talks, he mixes his first-hand accounts of the inspirational and humorous aspects of the astronaut experience, with stunning NASA visuals, and serious messages of teamwork, leadership, and performance.

Colonel Mullane 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.

Since his retirement from NASA, Colonel Mullane has written an award-winning children’s book, Liftoff! An Astronaut’s Dream, and a popular space-fact book, Do Your Ears Pop In Space? His memoir, Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, was reviewed in the New York Times and on The Daily Show.

Countdown to Teamwork

In “Countdown To Teamwork”, Astronaut Mullane delivers a hard-hitting, substantive teamwork and leadership program that is also wonderfully entertaining. (In places the content is laugh-out-loud funny.) The program centers on the following fundamentals:

Guarding against a “Normalization of Deviance” Normalization of deviance is a long-term phenomenon in which individuals or teams repeatedly accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the “norm”. Usually, the acceptance of the lower standard occurs because the individual/team is under pressure (budget, schedule, etc.) and perceives it will be too difficult to adhere to the expected standard. Their intention may be to revert to the higher standard when this period of pressure passes. However, by “getting away” with the deviation, it is likely they will do the same thing when the same stressful circumstances arise again. Over time, the individual/team fails to see their actions as deviant. Normalization of deviance leads to “predictable surprises” which are invariably disastrous to the team.

Mullane uses the Challenger tragedy to make this point. Under tremendous schedule pressures the NASA team accepted a lower standard of performance on the solid rocket booster O-rings, i.e., they accepted heat damage that was never expected. The team slowly fell into the trap of believing the absence of disaster when the deviance was observed meant the deviance was acceptable. The lower standard became the “norm”. By the dawn of Challenger, the NASA team had gotten away with O-ring damage so many times that the original standard, in which ANY O-ring damage had been defined as intolerable deviance, was marginalized. A “predictable surprise”, i.e., a deadly disaster, resulted.

Responsibility The power of all teams resides in the uniqueness of the team members, in their diversity of life experiences which yields a diversity of insights into team situations. When individuals become “passengers” and don’t put their unique perspectives on the table for the team and leadership to consider, the team will suffer. Mullane uses a personal experience to drive home the dangers of becoming a “passenger”. As a new crewmember in a 2-place fighter jet, he noted a safety situation but assumed the experienced pilot in command knew what he was doing when he elected to continue the mission. Ultimately Mullane and the pilot had to eject from the crashing plane. Having narrowly escaped death because of it, Mullane is intimately familiar with the dangers of team members slipping into a “passenger” mode. “One person with courage forms a majority”, is a quote by former President Andrew Jackson that Mullane will use in this discussion.

Everyone has a sacred responsibility to get their unique perspectives on the table for the leadership to consider; to never assume somebody else is going to fill in for them. Leaders have a sacred responsibility to empower the voices of their people so that no one is allowed to slip into a passenger mode.

Mullane closes this discussion with a real world example of how a medical doctor at NASA (not an engineer or astronaut) had the best solution for an engineering problem associated with the post-Challenger shuttle bailout system. This is an example of how great ideas can exist in the minds of people who are not considered the experts on a particular issue.

Courageous Self-Leadership Most audiences are shocked to learn how ordinary Mullane was. People assume because he is an astronaut now, that in his youth, he was a super-child, destined for great success. That is not the case. Mullane uses slides and video to prove he wasn’t a child genius. He wasn’t a high school sports star. He didn’t date the homecoming queen. He wasn’t popular. Yet he realized a lifetime dream through the practice of self-leadership. Every individual and team has an “edge of a performance envelope”. That edge is much further out than individuals and teams realize and they find it through the practice of self-leadership.

Self-leaders set very lofty goals, accept the unchangeable, make mid-course corrections around obstacles and stay focused on the goal. Mullane develops this philosophy of self-leadership: “Success isn’t a final destination. It’s a continuous life journey of working toward successively higher goals for yourself and your teams.”

Countdown To Teamwork is remarkably inspirational and humorous. The audience will come away from the program with a renewed sense of their potential and the potential of their teams.

Countdown to Safety

In his program, “Countdown To Safety”, Astronaut Mullane delivers a powerful message on the individual’s role in keeping themselves and their teams safe in hazardous environments. Mullane introduces this subject with a recount of his own near-death experience in a fighter jet, when he failed to speak up about an unsafe situation. He assumed another crewmember, with more flying time, “knew best” about the safety of their operations. In other words, at a critical moment in a hazardous operation, Mullane surrendered his responsibility for safety to someone else. He became a “safety passenger”. The result was his (and the pilot’s) narrow escape from death during their ejection from the crashing jet. The destruction of a multi-million dollar plane might have been avoided if Mullane had maintained his “safety presence” and voiced his assessment on the dangers of the pilot’s decision. Instead, he assumed he didn’t “count”, that the pilot knew best.

Mullane continues this thread: that each individual brings to their team a unique perspective on safety. Only when every person’s perspective is available for analysis can a team be truly safe. When it comes to safety, everybody counts. Safety is not management’s responsibility or a supervisor’s responsibility or the safety officer’s responsibility. It is EVERYBODY’S responsibility. Never be a “safety passenger”.

Another significant message within Mullane’s “Countdown To Safety” program is his discussion on “Normalization of Deviance”. Astronaut Mullane uses the space shuttle Challenger disaster to define this term, its safety consequences, and how individuals and teams can defend themselves from the phenomenon.

Challenger was the result of a failure of a booster rocket O-ring seal. Viewers will be shocked to know this failure was predicted: “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to solve the problem, with the O-ring having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.” (From a NASA-contractor memo dated six months prior to Challenger).

When a burn-damaged O-ring (a criticality 1 deviance) was first observed following the second shuttle mission, NASA, under enormous schedule pressure, convinced themselves the problem could be fixed with minor modifications to booster assembly procedures and that a grounding the fleet (required for a criticality 1 deviance) was not necessary. When the next several missions flew without O-ring anomalies, the correctness of the decision to continue operations was reinforced. However, over the following several years, more cases of O-ring sealing problems were observed in the returned boosters but with each successful flight the false feedback that it was safe to continue flight operations was strengthened. In other words, the absence of something bad happening was being falsely interpreted as an indication that the team’s actions were safe when, in fact, it was mere random chance that a disaster hadn’t occurred. The team had gotten away with accepting a criticality 1 deviance so many times, the deviance had been normalized into the team’s decision-making process. Challenger was a “predictable surprise”.

After dramatically defining “Normalization of Deviance”, Astronaut Mullane continues with an explanation of how individuals and teams can defeat this dangerous phenomenon through these practices: recognizing one’s vulnerability to it; making it a religion to “plan the work and work the plan”; considering one’s instincts; and, archiving and periodically reviewing near-misses and disasters so the corporate memory never fades. (Mullane explains that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia…17 years after Challenger…was a repeat of “Normalization of Deviance”. NASA’s corporate memory had faded over those 17 years.)

The messages delivered in “Countdown To Safety” are reinforced with rarely seen NASA video and slides. The program is hard-hitting, fast paced and, in places, very humorous. It is certain to open the eyes of every viewer to their individual criticality to team safety.