The Most Complex Subsystem
of the Spaceship Is You
The New Right Stuff has to do with People Physics. It is the subsystem of the spaceship that involves the people who build it and fly in it. The equations are brutally complex (so much so that none have yet been devised).
Unfortunately, it is also this subsystem that has been at fault in nearly every fatal accident.
One of the hardest parts of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was that it was a failure of my subsystem—the humans. It meant that we hadn’t learned the lessons deeply enough from the Challenger accident 17 years before.
We must never forget the (human) factors that led to those brutal accidents: hubris (excessive pride or confidence), unwillingness to speak up, unwillingness to listen, unwillingness to ask for help (or accept help or even admit we need help) and perhaps even basic personality conflicts (I don’t know that for sure, but it seems likely). Any of those can kill people, crash multi-million dollar spacecraft, and sideline our dreams.
These human frailties are (regrettably) completely normal in modern office environments and so no one really questions them. Office Space, Dilbert and The Office parody them, but the dysfunction of humans in work environments is largely left unchecked.
The problem is that in human spaceflight we have to hold ourselves to a much higher standard. What passes for normal in a modern office needs to become completely unacceptable in the space community.
NASA tried to put in more and more layers of safety, requirements and process to compensate for the lack of trust, communication, excellence, humility, and teamwork in a typical office environment. But no matter how many processes you impose, if the individuals and the team are not operating from integrity, love, trust and communication, giving it all for the higher good, and being willing to be uncomfortable— not just with long hours, but with sharing their concerns or mistakes, or working through their differences with a coworker, our teams will still not be working at their highest capacity and our space missions will not be given the best chance of success.