With a cable outage plaguing our neighborhood the other night, I decided to throw in a DVD and watch The Martian again. I enjoy that movie – and in fact when I first read the book, I kept trying to figure out what flight control discipline Andy Weir worked in for us – he just nailed the culture of diving in and fixing things so well, I figured he must have been on our team at one time. (It turned out he never was – but he worked for Goddard for a while, and learned how we worked). Anyway, there is a Flight Director character played by Sean Bean who has overall, real-time responsibility for the mission and the crew. He is sometimes at odds with orders from the program manager and the NASA Administrator over matters of what is best for his crew, and eventually is told that when the mission was over, he needed to resign because he tipped the crew off to a rescue plan that the administration didn’t like. Of course, his decision saved the day (as all good Flight Director decisions do)!
Now while the NASA administrator, played by Jeff Daniels, wasn’t a bad guy (he was just trying to make decisions with less overall risk for the entire program, in his view). The program manager was a bad guy, either. The disagreement between the program and the flight control team was not unusual when you look at the real flight programs we have gone through – from ISS, back through Shuttle, into Apollo, and all the way down to Mercury. Flight Directors are charged with the “Safe and successful completion of the mission” – and, at the very least, we are going to keep our crew safe – even if we can’t accomplish the mission. And sometimes, these fair disagreements could lead to what we called a “badge on the table” moment. In short, you have to be willing to throw your badge on the table – essentially be willing to give up your job – to do what you feel is the right thing. Now you don’t do this over matters of ego, “who’s right and who’s wrong” regarding program or mission requirements – you do it when you feel that you are being asked to do something that is unsafe or unwise. And you have to be willing to take it to the point where you’ll do what’s right and then walk out the door.
I got a message the other day that the Flight Director Class of 2018 is throwing a little reception/reunion for the current and past flight directors (the “Ancient and Honorable Association of Flight Directors” – if you haven’t been a Flight Director, you don’t get invited) next month. It’s become a tradition with each new class – sort of a chance for the old timers to sniff the new kids (and vice versa) and pass on a few thoughts to the next generation. Unfortunately, I can’t make it due to a conflicting consulting job this time – but if I was there, I’d have passed on my thoughts about “badge on the table” moments. If you’re not willing to risk AT LEAST your job to do the right thing for your crew, then you probably might not have the fortitude to do this particular job. I have no doubt the new kids are going to be up to the job – our selection process ensures that. And my wish is that, while they might be completely ready to take that action, they are never faced with a situation where it is required to prove it.
And I also hope that they get to direct a Mars mission!