Failures don’t wait until you’re grown up. For me, failing goes back a lot further in my history. You and I might be a bit alike; I tend to have a limited memory stack for my disappointments, but the right song, the right barometric pressure, and I start to think back to early days, to realize there are lessons still to be learned.
For me, the recent warm weather in Seattle has brought back memories of another summer - of 103-degree days, sweating away in the heat of Huntsville, Alabama; a kid in a powder-blue flight suit.
As part of Failure Week here on the blog, I’d like to tell you a story of a young pilot that trained hard, learned constantly, and failed epically – and it all came down to a switch. I was thirteen years old, in Space Camp, when I learned this important lesson about failure.
The Rules of Failure
#2: You Can Fail Horizontally and Vertically
I always showed my dad up when it came to digital flying. He’d been a serving captain on American Airlines’ flight staff for well over a decade, but I was determined to be better where I could. We had a 386DX home computer back then; a mega-beast of a local homebrew machine in off-white, sporting the envied “Turbo” switch that hinted at a coming world dominated by graphics performance and games. Our programs of choice - Jetfighter II and MS Flight Simulator 3 - occupied my days and nights.
Even with the tiny flight stick we had – an almost fingertip-twitch job that’d be more at home on a bomb disposal robot than on a modern jet attack aircraft – I felt in command of something real, in a way that inspired confidence and, as it turns out, a degree of realized skill. I could stick three-wire carrier landings with ease, and had gotten used enough to the simulated navigation instruments on my favorite programs that I could fly – and land – in near-zero visibility.
I made missions for myself, challenged myself, and developed the need to show off. Dad couldn’t have been prouder. None of it was real, of course, and save a sneak-along trip to the American Airlines Training Academy to watch Dad pilot an articulated MD-80 simulator, I felt like my experiences of flight would have to stay within the confines of the wooden hutch where I played my virtual games.
In 1994, that changed, when my father asked me if I’d like to go to United States Space Camp, in Alabama, for a six-day training course called Space Academy. Instead of landing a jet fighter, I’d get to land a shuttle. With other people.
I only had one question: when would I get that flight suit?
Three days after getting into Space Academy, the swagger was back. I was one of the few kids in the class that wore the powder-blue NASA flight suit. I wore it un-ironically, and had the aviator sunglasses to go with it. The other kids could laugh – and they did from time to time – but I was riding on a wave of endorphins; this was my place.
The little failures happened in due course: in model rocket building, my cherished creation exploded halfway up its ascent, tearing itself into smoky confetti. In the multi-axis trainer, my sasquatch-like feet, monstrous even at thirteen years old, came loose from the restraints and the spinning metal rings I was encased in missed tearing off my leg by mere inches. As communications officer in the Skylab simulation, I was forced into writing “HELP US” on a piece of copy paper and holding it up to the camera to get the attention of ground control when our CO2 scrubbers began to fail.
But the ace was up my sleeve: roles had been assigned for the final capstone course, the culmination of all our training, comradeship and struggles together, the Shuttle Mission on Space Camp’s simulator Enterprise.
And for that mission, I had been chosen to be her pilot.
Others would be mission specialists, still others in the control room on the ground – but I was the pilot, the stick-and-throttle man, the one to take her up and bring her home.
I didn’t register at the time that there wasn’t anything in the training literature about how to fly a shuttle orbiter – none of the usual two-hundred page manuals about the four forces of flight, the basic maneuvers, and the rest that made up the arsenal of technical knowledge any pilot should have. I paid little mind – after all, I knew that stuff – and just envisioned the flight ahead of me.
Walking a little taller, speaking a little bolder, never seen without my blue flight suit and aviators, I felt at thirteen years old as if I’d finally crossed a threshold. Sitting down at breakfast the morning of the mission, I watched a team of green-suited recruits from the Aviation Challenge program – a more military-like version of Space Academy for kids who wanted to be fighter pilots - march in lockstep into the cafeteria. Blessing my “civilian” status, I nonetheless felt as if the blue and the green may have had something in common – that morning, at the helm of Enterprise, I was going to prove it.
T Minus Zero
It wasn’t until we stepped into Enterprise‘s cockpit to get a look at our spacefaring craft that my dreams of slipping the bonds of Earth began to grate up against a harsh, ugly reality. The disparity was instant and deep as I sat down in the exalted pilot’s seat, to the right of the Mission Commander. The airspeed indicators, artificial horizons, gyros, navigation instruments, slip and angle meters, everything that had been so alive in my computer simulations at home, were just dead, fixed blueprints pasted onto a flat panel in front of me.
As I clipped into my harness, my hands instinctively went for the flight control stick as if to convince themselves that there was still something familiar, something I knew how to control. Feeling my heart sink at the sluggish rebound on the stick as I gave it a tentative push, knowing this too, was a similarly exsanguinated experience, I glanced up at the instructor that was getting us ready.
My eyes must have looked like the mud at the bottom of the ocean.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” he said, reassuringly, seeing my frustration and disappointment. “Just pull back on landing. The rest is switches.”
As the monitors in front of the simulator windows clicked on to display a pre-recorded video of the blue sky we’d be flying into, the instructor gestured to the panels above, below, and to my side, revealing a field of dull gray switches. Just switches. Only switches, as far as the eye could see. I was strapped into a capsule with a few dozen shiny sticks; I’d be shocked into response by some radio call or a blinking light, and slap the lever to get my treat. I wasn’t a pilot anymore. I was HAM, the Chimpanzee.
It’s Full of Switches
The countdown was beginning. My brain, reeling from the painful shock of my new, limited role within the mission, started to go blank. I knew that my sequence for liftoff consisted of some one-dozen switches at timed or signaled intervals, but like the last man out after the game getting the stadium lights, the bulbs were going out, one at a time, and the sequence was fuzzing to near-incomprehensibility.
- 0:30 -
What was the first set of switches? Powering up the systems, electronics check. Follow the Mission Commander.
The Mission Commander was a kid from Texas – my age, but beefy, with a flat top haircut. I prayed that he didn’t see me losing my mind in front of Mission Control and the rest of the world. His role was to call out the systems; he’d watch me as I flipped the appropriate switch, confirm the work was done, and move on. The whole dance had to be done for some twelve switches by the time the countdown clock reached zero for the mission to start on time and our team to get full points. Any delay, and we’d be penalized.
Power, check. Electronics, check.
The first set of switches were all grouped in a familiar spot up above me. Got ‘em.
- 0:20 -
Guidance, navigation, telemetry.
These were down near the instruments. The abbreviations were starting to get to me. GDNC, sure, NAV, sure. TXL? TX? XMT? My eyes were starting to go blurry. Luck carried me through, but I was beginning to fall behind.
- 0:07 -
Last step - Primary and auxiliary fuel pumps.
This was it; all that stood before us and auto-ignition of the booster rockets that would carry us into our pre-programmed ascent.
And my brain went blank.
AUX FUEL BOOST CUTOFF
Aux what? I couldn’t find it. My neural pathways reached out, desperately, throwing themselves off cliff after cliff in hopes of catching a precipice somewhere in my head that had the answer, but none came. I searched the entire set of switches above my head, at my feet, everywhere I could think of, but I had lost all reference.
The playbook was gone. The training was gone. The swagger was gone, and all I had was a clamped stomach, sick at the thought of letting down everyone because I couldn’t find and throw a simple switch.
- 0:03 -
“Mission Control -” When I opened up the communications channel, I heard my own voice in my ears. “We need to stop the countdown. I can’t find the switch.”
That voice wasn’t one belonging to a pilot. Just a little boy, who was worried about getting in trouble.
- 0:01 -
- COUNTDOWN SUSPENDED -
I looked out at the monitors. The pre-recorded flight video was paused. The clouds in the blue sky were jiggling back and forth, wispy lines of static betraying the final, horrible reality: somewhere, in a backroom, someone who controlled the VHS tape deck with all of our glorious pre-recorded flight footage, of orbiting the earth and seeing the brilliant stars, had been forced to press PAUSE.
I felt sick.
The Commander looked over at me, and with a grim face, pointed out the switch I had been looking for, by my right leg, swimming in a sea of others just like it. I flipped the switch. The countdown resumed. We boosted off into space. We EVA’d, repaired the space telescope, turned her around, burned back through the atmosphere and planked down at Edwards AFB – I pulled back to flare just like they told me – but the lead stomach never left from the moment that countdown clock froze. When we lost the Shuttle Mission competition with the other teams by a handful of points, I knew who was at fault.
The Lesson: Like me with Space Camp, you can be good at something and still fail – because failure can approach horizontally as well as vertically.
Circumstances can take you outside of your skillset, external demands can force you to pinch hit in ways you don’t understand or haven’t had practice in. And, in today’s rapidly-changing world, your commitment to excellence in your chosen field will be tested more often horizontally than vertically; the stresses will often be not about how deep your technical chops go, but how broad you can apply your skillset and still pull out a win.
Space Camp was the first place that really challenged my assumptions in this area. As I understood only much later, Enterprise is a procedures trainer, designed to maximize inter-group effectiveness through performance of cascading dependent tasks. As pilot, I didn’t have to worry about flying the shuttle because that’s not why we were training. The flight of the orbiter, while admittedly a crucial part of real shuttle operation, is only part of the larger, structured opera that is a full shuttle mission.
As we grow, develop, and seek out bigger projects in today’s connected economy, our roles will often resemble less of the lauded individual pilot and more of the connected, reliable switch operator. Specializing without flexibility, relying only on yourself and the depth of your individual skills can absolutely launch your career and bring you glory - but if you want my advice: watch your switches.
Ron Wanttaja has written up a great post on the grown-up version of Space Camp available for adults in Huntsville which I’ve used for a reference in this post; it can be found here.