Book interview: Paul Sean Hill, former director, Nasa - rocket science and the right stuff
Image credit: Nasa
Mission operations at Nasa is one of the most extreme decision-making environments in the world of technology project management. In his new book, former director Paul Sean Hill lifts the lid on how to get things right under the spotlight.
“The one thing that I have learned in Mission Control is that when we make mistakes, it’s not caused by the rocket science,” says Paul Sean Hill. The former Nasa Mission Control director is talking about the “other mistakes. In particular, these come from how we deal with each other. How we lead the team.” As the executive with responsibility for the famous movie-set style Johnson Space Center control room, “when I look back even at tragedies such as the deaths of astronauts while in Nasa spaceships, each one of those was not attributable to the science. They were attributable directly to leadership failings.” He goes on to say that there were cases when the team “actually knew we were making mistakes and we could have done the right thing”.
Hill’s new book, ‘Mission Control Management’, is about “exceptional decision taking in such a difficult job”, qualified by the idea that “as we transition into senior leadership we seem to lose it. How is it we end up with what I call having a management lobotomy? What causes that? How is that so common in so many industries? Based on that question, and on how we managed to figure it out and learn how to fly spaceships with effective leadership, how can these lessons be applied elsewhere in the world of technology management?”
We read it for you
‘Mission Control Management’ is an insider’s account of Nasa’s success track record and the science behind team performances at Mission Control. Author Paul Sean Hill, who was director of Mission Operations at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center between 2007 and 2014, details how he created a leadership culture that allowed his team to deliver positive project results while working in the highly pressurised atmosphere of public expectation and media scrutiny. He also explains how the lessons he learned in getting astronauts into space and back again can be applied to management structures in any organisation. When things go wrong, says Hill, it’s almost never to do with the science or engineering that goes into the project, but human error related to attention to detail. Spaceflight management has important lessons for managers everywhere.
When it comes to project leadership, getting people into space and back again safely with mission objectives accomplished must rank as one of the most pressurised jobs there is. But for Hill, the principles of project management are the same whether you are putting humans on the Moon or selling engineering components – the only difference being that you’re playing for higher stakes. “In fact, people outside our business – as well as people within it – make the common philosophical mistake of believing that if we can send rockets into space we can do anything because nothing is this difficult.”
He goes on to say that there’s an assumption that if there’s anything the flight controllers don’t know that can’t be learned quickly, “then it can’t be all that important. Similarly, people on the outside think that there’s nothing that they can learn from us, because that’s ‘rocket science’ and so what happens in the real word couldn’t be like that at all.”
The mistake is the same on both sides. Hill says that managing space flight “requires a significant ability in skills other than rocket science. If all we know is hard-charging leadership, where everything is black and white, and we believe that the physics and the science are the only things that will help us make the right decisions, then the enterprise risks failure.
“Conversely, although your business may not involve the risk of blowing up a rocket, it may well include the risk of blowing up a power plant or crashing aeroplanes. Importantly, in every business, apart from the risk to personnel, if you make these kinds of mistakes, you’ll end up costing your business too much money, losing customers and going out of business. That’s your equivalent of blowing up the rocket.” Hill says that these are the considerations you need to keep in front of you while making your most critical decisions.
“If you were to stand in the room, unless you understood the details of our business it is unlikely you would ever know if there was a crisis going on. The only clues would be very subtle. Every now and again a flight controller might stand up and turn around to talk to the flight director, which you don’t have to do because we’re using headsets and voice loops. Otherwise it’s all very calm. You’ll hear keyboard strikes as people type logs and enter data to send up to the spacecraft. But it’s typically pretty quiet. There’s not a whole lot of yelling, although I have a reputation of being one of the guys who swears from time to time.”
‘It is very clear to the public and to us that if we make a mistake then we blow up the rocket and we kill everybody’
Hill elaborates by saying that as with the public watching operations on their television screens at home, the control staff “feel the pressure. But when the clock is ticking and we’re handling a crisis, typically we are very, very focused. We refer to ourselves as steely-eyed missile men and women. We are so well prepared that, in fact, one of the director’s responsibilities is to look for signs that someone might be losing focus or starting to panic. That’s when I need to get their attention so that I can use their expertise. If they’re getting nervous or scared they can’t help us.”
Adrenaline rushes and sweaty palms are strictly for after the event, the moment when there is a collective expression of relief “when we say that we can’t believe that we got through it. This is one of those businesses where it is very clear to the public and to us that if we make a mistake then we blow up the rocket and we kill everybody and it’s on us. Even the smallest mistake in the calculation of a trajectory means that everything falls apart.
“That’s very clear to the public and that is why the public all around the world is so captivated by this business. That is one of the reasons why our leadership culture is as deliberate as it is when it comes to running that room, managing the space flight. The reason we are so good at it is because we never lose sight of what’s at stake.”
All of this is transferrable into everyday project management, says Hill, who thinks that there are several critical lessons that can be taken away from Nasa Mission Control and applied to engineering management.
“Whatever our business is, we all have our rocket science. We all have to get what we do right, and you don’t have to mess it up too often to find yourself looking for some other way of earning a living.”
He goes on to say that for the manager, it is critical to know “what your rocket science is, what the questions are that go with it are, and making sure you have the answers. This is without mentioning that if you believe in what you do then the last thing you want is to send out a bad message.”
‘Mission Control Management’ by Paul Sean Hill is from Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £14.99
In its infancy in 1961, riding into the sky in a missile was certainly not a safe or easy endeavour. More than 50 years later, flying in space remains exceptionally dangerous, even during ‘routine’ flight with everything operating as designed.
Yes, the current generation starts with an experience base the Apollo generation had to gain first. However, consider the relative significance of our total experience in flying people in space compared to commercial air travel as an example of scale. By 2016, a little more than 300 human missions have launched into space in history, and only half of these were from Nasa and Mission Control. Contrast that to more than 60,000 commercial airplane flights in the US, and 100,000 worldwide, every day. As experienced as today’s Mission Control is compared to the 1960s, we are still managing enormous risks in a comparatively unexplored environment.
It is also true that technology has improved in most areas, especially in computing, communications and navigation systems. Like our accumulated experience, the technological advances have contributed to greater reliability and confidence in operational decision-making.
Nevertheless, everything that reaches the lowest and most ‘easily’ achieved Earth orbit possible must still travel almost 17,500 miles per hour – 25 times the speed of sound. The energy required is massive. Even the most modern rocket engines generate huge amounts of thrust as long columns of fire in order to produce that much energy. Their millions of pounds of fire must be precisely controlled both to make it to orbit and to prevent the rocket from blowing up along the way. Even just this step is barely within human capability to do safely enough for human missions.
Edited extract from ‘Mission Control Management’ by Paul Sean Hill, reproduced with permission