Principles of Success in Spaceflight from Andrew Chaikin Online

Principles of Success in Spaceflight

Instructed by Andrew Chaikin, acclaimed space historian and author of “A Man on the Moon”

  • Principles of Success in Spaceflight reveals critical human behaviors essential for success in spaceflight projects. Presented by acclaimed space historian Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon (the main basis for Tom Hanks’ 1998 Emmy-winning HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon)the course leverages human behavior lessons from NASA’s history to guide spaceflight professionals on how to invite success and avoid failure.
  • All students will receive an AIAA Certificate of Completion at the end of the course.


What’s the critical difference between success and failure in spaceflight projects? Yes, the “rocket science” is hard—but if you ignore the human behavior piece of the system, you’re inviting failure. In the exacting business of spaceflight, as unforgiving as a high-wire walk, the surprising, counterintuitive reality is that success hinges on how we think about the work—the mindset we bring to our decisions—and the human behaviors that shape how we do the work. Are we open to new information that conflicts with our world view, or are we unconsciously telling ourselves a story that skews our perceptions? We may be blind to hard-wired failure ingredients like hubris, groupthink, non-communication, false perception of risk and that tribal syndrome of technical organizations everywhere called Not Invented Here. Are we in the grip of the insidious Reality Distortion Field created by cost and schedule pressure, unable to perceive that we’re headed down the slippery slope to failure or even tragedy? Or are we absolutely dedicated to proven success ingredients like systems thinking, painstaking attention to detail, risk reduction by design, clear and open communication, realistic testing for real understanding, what-if thinking, and openness to outside-the-box ideas?

Principles of Success in Spaceflight explores the impact of human behavior on success and failure in spaceflight projects through the lens of NASA history. Detailed case studies reveal the behavioral elements that became the root causes of NASA’s three major human spaceflight accidents: The spacecraft fire that took the lives of the Apollo 1 crew during a practice countdown in 1967, the Challenger accident in 1986, and the Columbia accident in 2003. We also see how each of these tragedies opened a window of cold, hard clarity that led to critical changes in mindset and behavior, enabling recovery from disaster. Unfortunately, history also teaches us how fragile—and brief—that window of clarity can be, and how shockingly easy it is to lose hard-won lessons and return to old, failure-inviting habits, again and again. Only a few years after Challenger, NASA was already forgetting what it had learned from that accident, paving the way for the Columbia tragedy and underscoring the critical need to not just learn from the past, but remember the lessons.

The course will include several opportunities for discussion and a chance to explore how the lessons of the past can be applied to today’s programs. We will understand why we must pay conscious attention to the stories we tell ourselves about our work, ourselves, and each other. And we will see why veteran NASA flight director and program manager Tommy Holloway told his people, “You’re not as smart as you think you are.”

  • Understand the human behaviors that invite success in spaceflight projects and those that invite failure
  • Understand the behaviors that led to the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and Columbia accidents
  • Apply the human behavior lessons of NASA’s history to your own work
  • Develop an awareness of the behaviors at work in your own organization, with the goal of promoting success behaviors and mitigating failure behaviors
  • Recognize the critical importance of helping to create a learning organization that remembers the lessons of past mistakes
AUDIENCE: All spaceflight professionals and aerospace engineering students

Type of Course: Instructor-Led Short Course
Course Level: Fundamentals
Course Length: 1 day
AIAA CEU's available: Yes


The Apollo Pyramid of Success
Looking at Apollo through the lens of human behavior, we explore each of the ingredients that made the Moon program successful:

  • A clear and compelling goal that comes from the top
  • Sufficient resources to accomplish the goal
  • Superb leaders and the culture they create
  • Personal responsibility throughout the organization
  • A systems approach to managing complexity
  • Understand the environment
  • Outside-the-box ideas can win
  • Risk reduction by design
  • Realistic testing for real understanding
  • What-if thinking
  • Painstaking attention to detail
  • Clear and open communication
  • Honest assessment of risk vs. gain
  • Learn from mistakes and remember the lessons
  • Luck
Failure Ingredients
Behaviors and mindsets that invite failure rather than success:

  • The Reality Distortion Field
  • False perception of risk
  • Negative tribal behaviors
  • Closed-mindedness
  • Groupthink
  • Cookbook thinking
  • Hubris
  • Luck

Case study: The Apollo 1 Fire

  • Summary of the fire’s proximate (technical) causes:
    • Spacecraft side hatch that could not be opened quickly
    • Vulnerable wiring and coolant lines in the spacecraft cabin
    • Large amounts of materials that were flammable in pure oxygen at elevated pressure
    • Cabin pressurized with pure oxygen at 16.7 p.s.i.

  • The fire’s root causes
    • A pervasive blind spot about the risks of oxygen at 16.7 p.s.i. in ground operations
    • Failure to test materials in their as-flown configurations
    • Change blindness, a phenomenon identified by cognitive scientists
    • NASA’s decision to use pure oxygen in Apollo
    • NASA HQ’s fire-prevention strategy, circa 1963
    • Project Mercury and the roots of pure oxygen on the launch pad
    • Apollo spacecraft program manager Joe Shea
    • The stories Shea told himself during Apollo
    • The shortcomings of the Block I spacecraft
    • Shea’s relationship with flammability
    • North American Aviation’s disconnect with NASA on the fire hazard
    • Shea’s view of fire prevention
    • Shea responds to a final warning about the fire risk
    • NASA’s blindfold: false perception of risk
    • Shea addresses his people after the accident
    • Gene Kranz gives his own people a very different message
    • Human behavior causes of the Apollo 1 Fire: Missing success ingredients
    • Human behavior causes of the Apollo 1 Fire: Failure ingredients

  • Recovery from the fire
    • The recovery sees a reduction in negative tribal behavior
    • George Low: the ideal program manager for the recovery
    • How Low saved Apollo
    • A better spacecraft
    • Summary of human behavior ingredients of the recovery
    • George Mueller and all-up testing
    • George Low’s bold proposal for Apollo 8
    • Apollo 8’s giant leap
    • Apollo hits its stride
    • Apollo 11 accomplishes JFK’s challenge
    • Apollos 12-17: Beyond the mission statement


  • Origins of the shuttle
    • A time of changing priorities
    • NASA’s survival crisis of the early 1970s
    • NASA’s official narrative for the shuttle: Routine and affordable spaceflight
    • Reality check: Energy requirements of spaceflight
    • The shuttle’s unprecedented requirements
    • The “all or nothing” shuttle
    • Risk and the design of the shuttle
    • A shuttle for all users
    • The shuttle as business model
    • Unrealistic goals for the shuttle’s flight rate
    • Operational after four flights?
    • Reality intrudes: The shuttle orbiter turnaround
    • 1983: “Fly like an airline!”
Case study: The Challenger accident

  • Cultural factors
    • Sowing the seeds of tribal discord: “Lead center management” for the shuttle
    • Tribal tensions resurface between JSC and Marshall
    • Marshall culture: Center director Bill Lucas
  • Ingredients of the accident
    • A Marshall issue: The Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) field joints
    • Unexpected problems: Field joint rotation and O-ring erosion
    • A solution for joint rotation is ignored
    • The Titan III’s solid rocket joints: What you don't know won’t hurt you
    • A bigger worry: The Space Shuttle Main Engine
    • Blow-by: A new, more worrisome issue with a temperature connection
    • July 1985: An expert’s warning at Thiokol
    • SRB joint anomalies: A confusing pattern
    • SRB joints: A “marginal design”
    • Success breeds “normalization of deviance”
    • Schedule pressure: Pushed to the limit in 1985
    • Schedule pressure: NASA HQ turns safety logic on its head
    • Schedule pressure: Launch delays of the mission before Challenger

  • Events that precipitated the accident
    • January 27, 1986: Cold weather forecast for Challenger’s STS-51L launch
    • “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?”
    • Standing logic on its head
    • January 27, 1986: The Fateful Telecon
    • Lack of communication and Challenger: Marshall
    • Lack of communication and Challenger: The ice team
  • Summing up the accident
    • An Apollo legend looks back at Challenger
    • The story we tell ourselves (and the world) about our work, and about ourselves, really does matter
    • Human behavior causes of the Challenger accident: Missing success ingredients
    • Human behavior causes of the Challenger accident: Failure ingredients
    • A lesson from Challenger: Holes in the Success Pyramid make you more vulnerable to failure ingredients

  • Recovery from Challenger
    • After Challenger: Tribal divisions ease, with help from NASA HQ
    • Details of the recovery

  • Discussion

Case study: The Columbia accident

  • Losing the lessons of Challenger
    • The Shuttle’s spectacular post-Challenger successes
    • The 1990s: A time of downsizing at NASA
    • Reality distortion field: A “mature system”
    • Reality distortion field: Privatize the shuttle?
    • Reality distortion field: Space station schedule pressure

  • Lead up to the Columbia accident
    • The shuttle orbiter’s vulnerable thermal protection system
    • Foam shedding: Another design “deviance” becomes normalized
    • Once again, near-misses breed false perception of risk
    • October 2002: The STS-113 Flight Readiness Review

  • The Columbia accident and its aftermath
    • January 16, 2003: The launch of STS-107 on Columbia
    • “In God we trust, all others bring data”
    • Once again, the shuttle’s false narrative of operational maturity corrupts decisions
    • February 1, 2003: 17 years after Challenger, Columbia is lost
    • False perception of risk + Lack of realistic testing: Reinforced carbon-carbon
    • The “smoking gun” of the Columbia accident
    • Human behavior causes of the Columbia accident: Missing success ingredients
    • Human behavior causes of the Columbia accident: Failure ingredients

  • Remember that missing elements in your program’s Success Pyramid make you more vulnerable to failure ingredients
  • History repeats—because awareness has a shelf life
  • The narrow spotlight of conscious awareness means that no matter how smart we are, we need backup
  • Conclusion: How can we take the next steps?
Andrew Chaikin is an independent space historian best known as the author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, widely regarded as the definitive account of the moon missions. Published in 1994, the book became the main basis for Tom Hanks’ 1998 Emmy-winning HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. He has been a visiting instructor at NASA since 2010 and has taught Principles of Success in Spaceflight to hundreds engineers and managers there as well as at the Missile Defense Agency.

A graduate of Brown University with a degree in geology, Chaikin served on the Viking missions to Mars at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was a researcher at the Smithsonian’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies before becoming a science journalist in 1980. Since 2015 he has been a member of the Geology and Geophysics Imaging team of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. He is also a member of the NASA Engineering Safety Center’s Human Factors Technical Discipline Team.

A former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, Chaikin has also been a contributing editor of Popular Science and has written for Newsweek, Air&Space/Smithsonian, World Book Encyclopedia, Scientific American, and other national publications. He is a co-recipient of two NASA Group Achievement Awards for his participation in the Viking and New Horizons missions, and is a recipient of the American Astronautical Society’s Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Space History.

Chaikin is an amateur musician and songwriter; he has also been an occasional space artist, and is one of the founders of the International Association of Astronomical Artists. He lives in Vermont.


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