If It Can Happen to NASA…

If It Can Happen to NASA…


Attendees at the Opening Session at Fire-Rescue International today in Denver went on a spaceship launch.

Well, OK, not a real launch, a pretend one. Retired astronaut and Air Force pilot Mike Mullane asked the audience to pretend they were his crewmembers as he walked us through the preparation and training that goes into a space mission, as well as some tidbits of what it’s like to be suspended in zero gravity.

Mullane’s message is engaging and funny–he began with a photo of himself in the “urine collection device” (read: adult diaper) all astronauts wear during launch, landing and spacewalks–but it also carried an important message about the factors that can make or break a team. And as with space shuttle missions, in the fire service, teams that don’t function effectively can end in tragedy.

Mullane identified three key fundamentals that make a great team:

  1. Guarding against the normalization of deviance
  2. Understanding the essence and importance of personal and team responsibility
  3. Courageous self-knowledge

The Normalization of Deviance
Why do bad things happen to teams with stellar histories? As Mullane pointed out, “NASA put people on the moon and returned them safely six times. But the same people who did that wrote the script for the Challenger disaster.”

Mullane believes that even great teams fall prey to the “normalization of deviance”–the natural tendency to want to take shortcuts from best practices. This most often starts when the team is under great pressure to perform. The team members rationalize that they can’t do the job at the best practice level because of the pressure they’re under.

For NASA, the Challenger disaster happened because team members ignored written and successive warnings about O rings on the booster rockets. When the best practice had first been written–the O rings are so critical that any problem with them means immediate grounding of the fleet–the team wasn’t under any pressure. But as Mullane notes, “The first O ring damage was noted after the second shuttle mission. The team was under tremendous schedule pressure because NASA was supposed to complete 26 missions a year.”

Faced with such pressure, teams often take a shortcut. And the problem: The shortcut rarely immediately results in failure, which creates a “false feedback” loop that reinforces that the shortcut is OK. And then, deviance becomes the norm. This is exactly what happened with the Challenger. Rather than grounding the fleet, the team produced tests that they believed proved that the damage wouldn’t result in any failure. Missions continued without additional bad results, which further reinforced the believe that everything would be OK… And then the Challenger disaster occurred.

So how do you avoid the normalization of deviance? Mullane identifies four strategies:

  1. Recognize your vulnerability. As Mullane puts it, “If it can happen to NASA, it can happen to anyone.”
  2. Plan the work and work the plan. Train at the best practice level and make sure leaders maintain best practice standards.
  3. Take periodic “resets’’ to best practice standards. Ask yourself, is my team the best? Is it the safest?
  4. Communicate. If you see something, say something. “Network among yourselves,” Mullane says. “Firefighters in California shouldn’t be repeating a mistake made months earlier in Connecticut.” He encourages leaders to put their experiences in writing and review them periodically.

Personal Responsibility
Another factor that can cripple teams is when individual members cease to be members and just go along for the ride. Mullane tells how, as an experienced Air Force pilot, he was training on a new type of plane. He was flying “Goose” with another pilot who had hundreds of hours of training on that particular plane. Feeling outmatched by the other pilot’s experience and position, Mullane failed to say anything when the pilot took the plane past its fuel range. The result: The plane ran out of gas, crashed upon landing and Mullane and the other pilot had to eject to survive.

“I ceased to be a team member and became a passenger,” Mullane says. “I transferred my responsibility for safety to him.” He notes several reasons why team members do this, including reluctance to initiate conflict, fear of rejection, fear of straining friendships, assumption of action by others, fear of the boss, and the idea that “it’s not my job.”

“We’re all in this together–there can’t be any passengers on any team,” Mullane says. Easier said than done, but Mullane does offer some tips:

  • Maintain your team presence at all times.
  • Realize that only when all members’ perspectives are incorporated can a team be as safe as possible.
  • Empower the team. Stress to the other members, “I value you. You bring a perspective that I may not see.”

Courageous Self-Leadership
“Success has come to all of us [in this room] largely because we fashioned ourselves as courageous self-leaders,” Mullane noted. By that, he was arguing against the idea that he or anyone else who achieves a measure of success was “destined” to that success.

Mullane led the audience through a series of humorous anecdotes about his teen and college years to prove that he was hardly destined to become an Air Force pilot, let alone an astronaut. But again, his point was serious: Success comes to those willing to challenge themselves, to continually push the performance envelope. And similarly, success will come to those teams that are pushed out of their comfort zones. “It takes gut to take your team to the next level,” Mullane says. “You have to have the courage to test the limits.”

Equally critical: staying focused on the goal during times of adversity. “Tenacity counts way more than genius,” Mullane says. “Pretty ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they incrementally move the bar higher and stay focused on the goal.”


  • Shannon Pieper is the editorial director for PennWell Public Safety, which publishes FireRescue magazine and FirefighterNation.com.