Making Up Stories

At three months, i’m able to have a conversation with my son: truthfully, not a very purposeful one, but certainly enjoyable. So far we have steered clear of Brexit and religion, focussing instead on the adventures of a small, but disproportionately kind, elephant, and a penguin who wishes she was an astronaut (spoiler alert: she makes it in the end).

A Sad Bear

Our relationship has reached new heights: he reliably recognises me as a human being, and is seemingly very content to squeak or squeal at me at key moments of the story. This has been a positive developmental stage: communication is now a thing, it runs two ways, and we both seem very happy about it. Writ large on his little face is a real joy in connections: indeed, he is so enamoured of them that he seeks them everywhere, smiling on demand at any other human, humanoid, or elephant, that smiles in his direction.

Interestingly, he has also worked out that he can use his proto-language to express things other than happiness: sometimes, instead of crying, he will try to articulate his misery with a ‘word’.

Ok, well if you insist, here is the story about the elephant.

One day, Elephant found his friend staring up at the sky, looking sad.

‘Why are you so sad?’, asked Elephant.

‘Because the sun has gone away’, said the Bear. ‘It’s dark and gloomy, and i cannot read my book’.

Elephant looked up at the sky: it was indeed dark. The sun had set, and the moon not yet risen.

‘How does it feel to be sad?’, asked Elephant.

‘It feels cold, and blue in my tummy’, said the Bear.

Elephant thought about his own tummy: it currently held several pieces of liquorice that he had found under the table, and a nice cup of tea. It felt warm and orange.

But Elephant suddenly realised that he felt sad too. Because his friend was sad.

‘I’ll tell you what’, said Elephant, ‘let me put my trunk around you, and we can sit here together until the moon comes up, then we can go and find find come cocoa together’.

So he sat, and put his trunk around Bear, and they both sat there together, staring up at the sky, until the moon came up. Then they went and drank cocoa.

‘Mmm’ said Bear. ‘I feel warm and orange in my tummy’. And Elephant felt warm and orange too.

The end.

I hope that those squeals you are making are happy ones.

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Leadership Reflections from Apollo: #WorkingOutLoud

As well as the main chapters for the Guidebook, there are some shorter topics that will be covered in breakout boxes. Today i am sharing three of these as part of #WorkingOutLoud.

Reflection: Orbit

If you are a mathematician, or orbital mechanic, please feel free to skip this section. But for the rest of us amateurs, consider falling down. Or rather, falling off.

There was one thing i learnt whilst researching this book that really stuck in my head: that going ‘into orbit’ is not about throwing something up into the air and hoping that it stays there, but more about throwing it in a curve, off the edge, until it perpetually falls.

There are two forces at play: the energy put into lobbing the spacecraft up, and the gravity that tries to pull it down again. If you throw a ball on earth, it goes in an arc: you put energy into the system, and the ball goes up, but over time and distance, gravity pulls it back down. Literally, ‘what goes up, must come down’ [1].

Although that is not always true: if you put enough energy into it, it could break away from the Earth’s gravity entirely, and keep going forever. Or until it hits a passing spaceship, alien, or interplanetary greenhouse. It takes a lot of energy, but then space travel is mainly about energy, and escaping our planet’s gravity is a big part of it.

The diagram shows the three states that i found most useful to understand this: [THREE] launch the spaceship with not enough energy, and you get a ballistic lob (which is pretty much how an intercontinental ballistic missile works). What goes up, travels in an arc, and then comes down, with a bang. This is good if you are trying to hit something, but bad if you want to get into orbit.

[One] Use more energy, and the spaceship goes up, escapes gravity, and goes forever. But use just the right amount, and it goes up, in an arc, and starts to fall down, but it’s gone ‘over the edge’ [TWO].

It remains in balance: it is, in effect, endlessly falling. In my understanding, it misses the edge of the planet, so falls, but as it travels around the planet, so gravity goes with it, pulling it equally at any point.

Once in orbit, it takes relatively little energy to maintain it, which probably speaks to the stability of many systems.

Leadership Reflection: it may require a great deal of brute force to achieve an end, but the devil is in the detail: understanding the complex forces and interplay of forces at work, and fine tuning with a nudge in the right direction, is probably the route to success.

[1] And yes, i know there is friction, and energy leaking out as noise and heat, but let’s keep it simple.

Reflection: Ullage

As everyone knows from their schooldays understanding of rockets, they come in stages: during launch, each successive stage is used up and separated. When this separation occurs, it’s not as smooth as you may think: when one rocket stops burning, the craft brakes, and can momentarily become weightless, then the next stage engine kicks in, and off you go again.

But in the complex world of fuel, this is an issue: the weightlessness means that the fuel may not be at the bottom of the tank, where you need it. It sloshes up to the top, where it does no good at all. And as with most things rocketry, this is very bad news.

So as well as the giant Saturn V engines, and the ascent and descent SR1 engines, there were a whole series of ullage rockets, with a small but important function: they started to fire one fifth of a second before the stage separated, and fired for a total of four seconds, and then were discarded thirty seconds later. They served two purposes: firstly, they forced any gas into the space at the top of the fuel tank, where it belonged, and secondly, they created a slight pressure at the engine inlet.

Saturn V rockets carried at least four of these engines, with 150kg of solid rocket propellant in each, and they served a small but vital function in the success of the mission [1].

Leadership Reflection: small cogs make the whole machine work.

Notes

[1] In Woods (2016)

Reflection: Slowing Down

The inferno of liftoff implies that we are trying to leave the earth, so it seems rather counter intuitive that a great deal of effort was put into preventing the rocket from doing so: the entire weight of the rocket sat on four ‘hold down arms’, which prevented the vehicle from moving during transport, but more importantly, prevented it from taking off when the engines fired.

Effectively the hold down arms acted like four pincers: left to it’s own devices, the rocket could shoot off with an erratic and shocking force, especially if, for example, one engine achieved full thrust before the others. So at launch, all the engines spun up, and once equal thrust was verified, the hold down arms retracted.

But these arms were not the only thing that held the rocket back: there were a series of ‘controlled release mechanisms‘, which are best viewed as a series of tapered rods (attached to the rocket) that had to be pulled through a series of disks with holes in, attached to the launch pad. The rocket could start to move, but the force required to distort the rods and squeeze them through the holes in the disk again would slow down departure, and provide an element of throttling, meaning a somewhat smoother liftoff.

Leadership Reflection: pace and tempo count. It’s easy to assume that momentum is the answer, but not always correct.

Notes

[1] In Woods (2016)

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Apollo Leadership Reflections: A Rough Path Leads To The Stars

Three men died on January 27th, 1967. They suffocated in the Command Module of Apollo 1, not in the depths of space, or the surface of the moon, but on Launch Pad 34, at Cape Kennedy, Florida. They died not from an unexpected technical failure, or an unknown risk, but rather due to lack of diverse critical thinking, and a disconnect between broad knowledge and specific action. They died not because of the unknown, but because of the disconnected.

This post is one of a series as i #WorkOutLoud to complete my latest Social Age Guidebook: it’s a series of Leadership Reflections on the Apollo programme at 50 years.

Their deaths, the first US astronauts to die in the American space programme [1], almost halted the race to the moon, and the lessons learned resonate through the mindset and approach of NASA to this day [2].

Commander Gus Grissom, veteran Ed White, and rookie Roger Chaffee, knew that they were not going to the moon that day. In fact, they knew that they were not going to the moon at all: the test was of a Command Module called ‘Block 1’, designed as a prototype of the full Command Module, but only to orbit the earth. Apollo 1 would carry this module into orbit, and use the data on it’s performance to finalise work on ‘Block 2’, currently being finalised by North American, the aerospace company leading on this element. This type of incremental development sat at the heart of the rapid schedule of development that would ultimately deliver success to the programme: the modular nature of the Saturn V and Apollo components, and the ability to ‘plug’ different configurations together, meant sequential testing could be fluid and fast.

But Block 1 had it’s issue: nobody had built a spaceship before, but nonetheless, it was clear to Grissom and his crew that this one had issues: so many changes were being made, in service of different needs and goals, that the engineers could barely keep up. The floor of the Command Module was draped with bundles of wire, largely unprotected, constantly getting damaged, and one result of this was that the engineers began to resist the astronauts suggestions for further change [3]. For the engineers, getting to completion, managing complexity, may have started to shift focus away from the broader mission objective: to fly a man safely to the moon and back.

There was a broad perspective that this Apollo craft was not just slightly flawed, but downright dangerous: in an earlier test of the Service Module engine, the one that would put the craft in lunar orbit, but more importantly fire again to send it home, had resulted in the engine nozzle shattering like glass. Indeed, by this stage, the complete vehicle had logged around 20,000 individual failures [4].

Apollo had been preceded by the Gemini programme, during which the astronauts had had regular and welcome input into engineering teams who had seemed part of the crew. But NASA had been smaller then, with less political oversight and pressure. And there was something of a dynastic change: some felt that the Apollo leaders saw Gemini as quaint and irrelevant: a sense that the mass, momentum, and might, of Apollo negated the need to learn lessons from it’s little brother. The hierarchy, system, and programme itself bred an arrogance, alongside a systemic disconnect: it was not always clear who could make a final decision, and the expanded teams led to sometimes fragmented pathways. All of which was a recipe for failure.

This particular test was not considered dangerous: the Saturn V was not even fuelled, but when the astronauts had first entered it, there had been a strong smell of sour milk in the atmosphere, which had taken an hour to resolve. Eventually, the cabin was sealed with the heavy hatch: it came in two parts, with an outer door, and an inner frame that opened inwards. And it was a compromise.

Throughout the design, NASA engineers, astronauts, and even some engineers at North American, had questioned the design, but it had two a key benefits of being light, and simple. And as everyone knew, opening inwards meant that, when pressurised in flight, it was far easier to keep an airtight seal. But weight was likely the deciding factor: development of the Apollo modules was substantially a battle against weight, because every single kilo of equipment took dozens of kilos of fuel to heft into orbit.

Throughout the day, as the three astronauts sweated inside their suits, communications were problematic: the radio links between the Command Module, the Blockhouse, and the Capsule Communicator, were erratic at best. “Jesus Christ… how are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” asked Grissom?

That morning, Grissom and Deke Slayton, chief of Crew Operations, and an astronaut himself, had run through the litany of faults: coolant leaks, faulty wiring, environmental control systems, “If you don’t believe it, you ought to get in there with us” said Grissom, an offer that Slayton considered, as there would have been space for him to crouch in the equipment bay in his shirt sleeves. But ultimately he decided he would have been better off in the blockhouse, where he could gain a wider view of the test. The decision saved his life, but haunted him through the rest of his life [5].

At 18:31, an abrupt transmission came from the Command Module, “Fire”.

Several hundred meters away, in the Blockhouse, designed to withstand an explosion at launch, Slayton glanced at the black and white monitor which had a camera trained on the exterior of the Command Module: it showed the window in the hatch glowing white, flaring out on the monitor.

A second voice cut in on the radio, in the clear, clipped, tones of a Test Pilot: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit”. It was Chaffee, whose role, in an emergency, was to keep in contact with the Blockhouse.

Slayton could see on the monitor that Ed White was reaching behind, and over his head, to try and undo the bolts that held the hatch shut, a futile effort as this required a special tool to undo the bolts. “We’ve got a bad fire… we’re burning up”, came a more desperate voice. Less than half a minute after that came the final transmission from Apollo one: it was a brief cry of pain.

Outside, the pad technicians fought to get close, but even on the outside, it was too hot: time and again for several minutes, they were beaten back by the intense heat. Inside the capsule, in the pure oxygen pressurised atmosphere, even materials that would normally be considered fire resistant burned with a fierce heat: velcro, the cargo nets, electrical insulation, all exploded into fire, driving temperatures up to over 2,500 Fahrenheit. The huge pressure that built up meant that opening the hatch, a fairly monumental effort even at the best of times, would have been impossible: it was sealed shut with several thousand pounds of force, until the skin of the module itself ruptured after fifteen seconds, venting flames to the outside.

In the event, the astronauts did not burn to death: their air hoses melted in the inferno, and as the cabin ruptured, their breathing apparatus was flooded with carbon monoxide. They lost consciousness in between fifteen and thirty seconds, and were dead within four minutes.

As the smoke cleared, only blame and sorrow were left behind, both of which would remain in the atmosphere for years to come.

Accusations towards North American may have been partly unfounded: the need to save weight was all consuming, and none of the decisions had been taken without oversight of NASA. Some of the most damning elements concerned the use of pure oxygen: pure oxygen was used because the complexity of an oxygen/nitrogen (safer) mix was prohibitive. In orbit, pure oxygen was necessary, but cabin pressure was only 5psi. On the ground, the cabin was pressurised to 16.7 psi, which was significant: oxygen is flammable at any pressure, but it becomes terrifyingly flammable at these higher pressures. But nobody questioned why this high pressure was used: it was not necessary for the test, but it had always been done. And an arrogance assumed that all fire risks were correctly managed within the capsule.

The final review board concluded that there had been a spark from damaged wiring on the floor, which ignited vapour from a leaking coolant pipe: that lit the nylon netting (fearsomely flammable in pure oxygen).

In subsequent modules, electrical cables were encased in metal trays, to protect the wiring. The amount of velcro and nylon was reduced, but despite their best efforts, it proved impossible to create a cabin that was fireproof in the enhanced risk of 16psi. So engineer Max Faget came up with a different idea [6]: at launch, the atmosphere would be 60% oxygen to 40% nitrogen, but as the rocket ascended, and pressure dropped, they would bleed out the nitrogen, until in orbit it was pure oxygen, but at the safe pressure of 5psi. This necessitated protecting the astronauts from getting the bends, like deep sea divers, so they breathed pure oxygen through their masks the whole way up.

Grissom, Chaffee, and White, were buried with full military honours, and today, Pad 34 stands as a monument to their sacrifice: if you visit the Cape, it’s possible to take a bus out to view it. The plaque reads ‘ad astra per aspera’ [7].

‘A rough path leads to the stars’.

When Armstrong and Aldrin finally made it to the surface of the moon on Apollo 11, Aldrin had a space suit that different very slightly from the others: in a special pouch he carried an original mission patch that honoured the three men from Apollo 1 and, in a nice touch, a medal for Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who had died on Soyuz 1, which he left on the moon [8].

The effort to get a man to the moon, and return him safely, resulted in the construction of the most complex machine ever built by humankind. But the failure of this system came from known risk in a known context: it was not some kind of emergent, radically complex, unknown risk, but rather a pragmatic and clearly visible one, hidden by familiarity and possibly an arrogance of system and design.

Lessons were learned, in part because the accident happened on the pad, meaning a full analysis could take place, but the Apollo programme was no longer innocent: the first steps on the moon had claimed their first price beyond money.

Leadership Reflections

  • Arrogance can be held individually, or within a system.
  • Our knowledge traps us within a frame: it can be hard to hear weak voices of dissent.
  • Risk may sit in plain sight, but be normalised.
  • The things that ‘we have always done’ may be the things that we most need to change: do not assume they are there because of the brilliance of others.
  • All systems fail: complexity cannot be infinitely layered.

Notes

[1] One could argue that a number of Test Pilots died in precursors of the various modules that ultimately evolved into the Saturn V, and several astronaut candidates died in training accidents, but the Apollo 1 fire was the first as part of the full up Apollo programme.

[2] Although the lessons resonate, they were arguably not learned: the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, caused by systems of power and consequence that silenced dissenting voices carried some parallels.

[3] A key observation in Chaikin (1994), and one which demonstrates how momentum trumped excellence and adaptation, a likely component of the Apollo 1 failure.

[4] In Lovell and Kluger (2015), who also recount how, in an early test of the splashdown, the heat shield had split in two, and the $35 million lander had sunk to the bottom of the test tank. An inauspicious return to earth.

[5] Slayton’s own journey is interesting: barred from flight due to a heart irregularity, he sat at the heart of crew operations throughout Apollo, before finally being cleared for his own flight in 1975, on the Apollo-Soyuz project.

[6] In Riley and Dolling (2009), who provide a useful insight into the entire Apollo 11 hardware setup.

[7] In Nelson (2010), who also recounts the long struggle that the three widows of the deceased astronauts went through to gain paltry compensation: ultimately Ed White’s wife committed suicide twenty years later, whilst organising a widows reunion. As i said, the shadows of the failure of Apollo 1 ran long.

[8] Recounted in Magnificent Desolation (p3) (Aldrin, 2009).
Bibliography and further reading

Chaikin, Andrew (1994): A man on the moon: the voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Penguin, London.

Aldrin, Buzz (2009): ‘Magnificent Desolation: the long journey home from the moon. Bloomsbury, London.

Riles, Christopher, and Dolling, Phil (2009): ‘NASA Mission AS506, Apollo 11, 1969 (including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5), Owners’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Woods, David (2016): ‘NASA Saturn V, 1967-1973 (Apollo 4 to Apollo 17 & Skylab), Owner’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Morton, Oliver (2019): ‘The Moon’. Profile Books, London.

Lovell, James, and Kluger, Jeffrey (2015): ‘Apollo 13’. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Mailer, Norman, (2009): ‘Moonfire’. Taschen, Germany.

Muir-Harmony, Teasel and Collins, Michael (2018): ‘A history in 50 objects – Apollo to the moon’. National Geographic, Washington DC.

Day, Dwayne (2006): ‘Saturn’s fury: effects of a Saturn 5 launch pad explosion’. http://www.TheSpaceReview.com (retrieved 23rd July 2019) http://www.thespacereview.com/article/591/1

Kranz, Gene (2000): ‘Failure is not an option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and beyond’. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Nelson, Craig (2010): ‘Rocket Men: the epic story of the first men on the moon’. John Murray, London.

‘Computers in Spaceflight: the NASA Experience – Chapter Nine – Making New Reality: Computers in Simulations and Image Processing’ https://history.nasa.gov/computers/Ch9-2.html (Retrieved 25th July 2019)

Stodd, Julian (2016): ‘The Limits of Hierarchy – Brittle Systems’. https://julianstodd.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/the-limits-of-hierarchy-brittle-systems/ retrieved 26th July 2019

Riley, Christopher, and Dolling, Phil (2009): ‘NASA Mission AS-506 – Apollo 11 – 1969 (Including Saturn V, CXM-107, LM-5) An insight into the hardware from the first manned mission to land on the Moon’. Haynes Publishing, UK.

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What I’m Thinking About: Godless Morality and the Evolution of Organisations

I normally write the blog Monday to Thursday, and write my ‘Captain’s Log’ newsletter on fridays. But today i am publishing two blog posts, as it’s been a productive week! This, the second Friday post, is actually the section from the Captain’s Log that share ‘what i’m thinking about’. It’s a short essay that acts as a reflection on morality, and the context of the evolution of our Organisations. If you enjoy it, you can sign up for the weekly newsletter here.

The Captain’s Log

In his book, ‘Godless Morality’, Richard Holloway, former Archbishop of Edinburgh, says the following: “Obeying is what people did. There were always human ways to modify or soften the system, but they only proved the rule that society was a finely articulated command system in which we all knew our place and the places of those above and below us, and we took it all for granted. The system was protected by the claims of revelation and tradition… it was the way things had always been.

He was talking about the established church, but his words, written twenty years ago, apply equally well, today, to almost all our established Organisations: historically our role was to ‘obey’, to ‘take a job’, and to conform. The hierarchy gave us our place within the system, alongside a carefully choreographed ritual of progression, governed by both that conformity, and over time. Today, the established power of the Domain Organisation is protected by claims of the market, and tradition: it is how things are, it is how things are maintained.

The diminution (Holloway uses the word disintegration) of religion as the heart of life in the UK has been matched by the rise of secularism. The diminution of the Domain Organisation will follow a different path though: it is not the case that we will lose Organisations, but rather that we will build new ones.

In my own work, this will be what i call the Socially Dynamic Organisation, but you can call it what you like. It will essentially be an Organisation more in balance, held strong not so much by hierarchy and control, as by fairness and belief. And it will not be, nor claim to be, perfect, so much as governed by a humility in both individual leader, and system.

In my earliest work around the Social Age, i focussed on two key aspects: radical connectivity, and the democratisation of technology. These are the tools of the revolution. Connection allows power to flow outside and around of the hierarchy, it evolves and devolves control of the story, and permits the Organisation to exist in a world of parallel narratives, some formal, some social, all equally valid.

A core theme of Holloways essay, which explores the relationship between absolutist moral systems tied to belief, and evolutionary ones tied to human fallibility, is that systems must change to match our evolving understanding. If i read it correctly, his own belief is something he describes in dynamic terms: not rudderless, adrift from any anchor or foundation, but fluid within certain guide rails.

For example, he describes the murder is always wrong: that is one guide rail. But that when it comes to morality, we live within a broad church, within a broad range of belief systems, all of which are human interpretations.

Again, reflect that onto our view of society: the paradigms of work, or education, even of citizenship and home, all of these are fragmented by evolved technologies and opportunities.

I noticed that one of my friends, whose role had previously been ‘head of learning’ at a global Organisation, last week took on the role of ‘Global Learning Transformation’. ‘Transformation’ is the order of the day: we must change, but if we do not do so according to some natural law or edict from above, how will we do so?

Tribes

At the heart of any Organisational approach to change must sit two key levers: one is Individual Agency, and the other, Interconnectivity.

You cannot change by applying pressure alone: not a belief system, nor a hierarchy. Ultimately belief is held by the individual, and when we consider the Organisation itself as a system of belief, the change must start with one.

Yesterday i spoke to a friend in a global bank, operating under new senior leadership: she described some structural and staffing changes, and then shared a view that things were changing. Her belief had evolved. In reality, some contracts may have changed, but the ‘sense’ of change, the belief in it, was a matter of a story that she told herself.

Senior leaders can give one perspective, but everyone has a story. The ways, the capability, to connect up, between disparate views, supports this.

I realise that this is a high level narrative, but a time of radical change must require us to shift our perspective.

We can still have Organisations, but if they wish to attract and retain the best talent, if they wish to innovate and change, if they wish to remain relevant and succeed, they must change.

The paradigm of the Domain Organisation still holds some sway: dogma and effect still rule. But the Socially Dynamic one is real too, and can co-exist, if we can hold the Dynamic Tension between the two to be true.

My own sense is that many Organisations are hungry for a new way, but not necessarily yet ready to pay the price. Holloway’s own price, for exploring his view of morality beyond God, was to have to leave his position within the church. Twenty years later, he reflects, in his nineties, that it was a worthwhile price, as he has seen the church itself evolve.

We have always been used to seeing Religion, and Business, as two of the three pillars of society, alongside Government, but with little cross over between them. But perhaps one thing we can take across is a view of relevance and change. The dominant church in Northern Ireland is no longer so. And our dominant views of commerce and control may equally fail if we do not listen.

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Leadership Reflections from Apollo at 50: Chapter 5 – Simulation & Testing

Today i am sharing a full draft chapter from my upcoming Social Age Guidebook on Apollo, which consists of a series of leadership reflections. It’s part of #WorkingOutLoud.

There is one discipline that Apollo progressed with remarkable vigour: developing hardware simulators and complex simulations to train and test the astronauts for what may happen, and testing their physical and mental prowess, to see how prepared they were for the challenge.

In total, the Apollo astronauts spent around a third of their training time in simulators [1]. But all of this testing was in respect of a new domain: nobody was sure quite how the craft would behave, and nobody was certain how a human would stand up to the stresses and strains of space flight.

The technical simulators served two functions: to train astronauts on the correct functioning of systems, and collections of systems, and, secondly, to build resilience per the failure of these systems.

Simulations thus tended towards the connected, or the dastardly, reflecting the dichotomy at the heart of the training: time on connected simulations allowed an astronaut to rehearse, and master, every aspect of the mission, in sequence, in an environment that as closely mirrored the expected reality as possible, time on the dastardly would test them in the ways to recover when things went wrong.

But things go wrong in innumerable ways: if the outcome of every simulation was failure, a crash, then that could be both disheartening, and counter productive. But if every simulation was too easy, or predictable, it would add no real resilience, broad capability, or learning.

The role of the SimSup was to design these events, and he would sometimes come under criticism for creating an event so extreme, or unlikely, that it was felt to be unfair. But that is almost the point of failure: certainly failure occurs in known ways, but more often, it’s unknown, un-modelled, or complex [2]. It’s rarely timely or fair.

The Apollo Programme required the development of a full range of flight simulators, including General Electric’s Spaceflight Visual Simulator [3], which created the world’s first visual representation of a landscape on a digital screen.

The Apollo astronauts came to the programme with superlative flight skills, many from the Test Pilot programme, so all were well used to all manor of aeronautical surprises: the issues they faced though, was that space flight involves no ‘air’ once you have left the atmosphere, and all the vehicles that they were flying were new. New in terms of design, and new in terms of their sphere of operation.

Both ‘fixed base’, and ‘moving base’, simulators were created through the preceding Gemini and Mercury programmes: both could simulate inputs, and give some sense of feedback, either through spoofed system inputs and moving images or, in the case of the latter, actually moving the simulation capsule itself.

Alongside the full function simulators were a range of ‘part task’ ones, which allowed intensive training on one particular aspect of the mission.

In total, Apollo used fifteen different simulators [4] to prepare the astronauts for their missions: three of them simulated the main Command Module, two were for the Lunar Module that would go to the surface, a ‘Command Module Procedures’ part simulator just trained the lunar crew with how to rejoin the Command Module after their landing, and the ‘Lunar Module Procedures Simulator’ just trained the two moon walkers on procedures of landing and rendezvous.

These simulators were driven by some of the earliest mainframe computers: all of the procedural simulators were run from a single mainframe, whilst the Mission Simulators used networks of several mainframes [5]. One challenge that emerged was that the ‘AGC’ on board guidance computers for Apollo used a different programming language from the earth based ‘DDP-224’ simulation mainframes: to develop a functional simulation required 20 experienced IBM programmers, and still took around four months to build for each mission. Add that to the six months of training time required, and the lag was significant, and unable to handle change well.

One analyst, James Raney, thought that things could be done differently: he proposed that instead of recoding the mainframes to try to recreate every instruction on the on board computers, they could be programmed to run a simulation of the computer itself. Nobody at NASA believed that this ‘simulation within a simulation’ approach would work, but in desperation it was finally approved, and proved to be a spectacular success [6]. As well as solving an intractable and lengthy problem, Raney’s solution cost just $4.6 million, compared to $18 million for the replication approach. It’s a great example of a lone voice challenging an established frame of understanding, where the systemic resistance was held more in pride, and existing power structures of the programmers and NASA staff, than it was in evidence or technical issues.

One of the most incredible simulators was the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, a contraption that looked somewhat like a rocket powered spider, which used jet engines to support 5/6ths of the vehicles weight permanently, allowing the pilot to ‘play’ with the remaining sixth, which should give a reasonable approximation of how the Lunar Module would feel, and behave, coming in to land.

It was this contraption that nearly killed Neil Armstrong, on 6th May 1968, a year before Apollo 11 took off: a propellent leak led to the total loss of control, and Armstrong ejected from the craft with lightning fast reactions, just thirty feet above the ground, parachuting to safety and avoiding the fireball as the Research Vehicle exploded. It was not his only brush with death.

Armstrong knew that, in theory at least, the landing computer could manage the entire landing process, bringing them to rest on the moon’s surface without him having to touch a single control. But the test pilot in him was concerned that the sightless machine would land them in a boulder field. Or possibly the test pilot in him could not conceive of missing the opportunity to be the first pilot of a strange craft in a stranger land [7]. The simulators allowed him to develop the vision and approach to handle the varied permutations of this plan. Something that proved fortuitous as, come the real landing, there was, indeed, a boulder field.

He always intended to take manual control for the last five hundred feet and, in the event the audio tapes of the Eagle landing do not do justice to the zen like trance, and dance, occurring between Aldrin (reading out the dwindling fuel), and Armstrong (unwilling to land between boulders the size of a house, and with a pilots instinct that he could clear the field).

Simulation for the Lunar Lander presented an interesting range of frames: flying the lander entirely by hand was perilously risky. Armstrong’s preferred approach would be to let the computer handle the throttle, whilst he tilted and tipped the vehicle to influence direction. But there was always the real possibility of a total failure of guidance or control, in which case he would hit the ABORT STAGE button. This would jettison the landing stage, and ignite the ascent engine, itself a risky move, as there was no way of knowing how far clear they would be of the discarded bodywork, and no time to problem solve if something went wrong: additionally, they may get back to orbit, but not necessarily anywhere near to Collins, in the Command Module, a situation that may give them a worse ending that a simple fiery, glory filled crash onto the surface itself.

Alongside the monumental technology simulation and testing lay the human side of it.

From initial selection, through to final training, NASA doctors and engineers devised a punishing and, quite frankly, speculative or made up, series of tests. Nobody knew how many g’s (one ‘g’ is the force of gravity we feel right now) an astronaut would need to survive. The most extreme roller coasters in the world will subject you to almost 6g. Surprisingly, during launch, an astronaut will only feel a leisurely 3g or so. Unless things go wrong.

For good measure, NASA developed a centrifuge that spun the astronauts up to 20g, forces that would render the most capable pilot unconscious, as blood is drained away from the eyes and the brain. The test was unpopular, to say the least.

But necessary: on the Gemini 8 flight in 1966, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott flew to practice rendezvous with an Agena satellite, setting up manoeuvres that would ultimately form part of the Apollo rendezvous mission plan. The early Mercury and Gemini programmes set many of the building blocks in place. But in this instance, a thruster on the Gemini stuck open, and the two mated craft started to spin: in an effort to control it, Scott threw the switch to separate them, but the now lighter Gemini started to spin ever faster. Armstrong and Scott fought for survival, until, on the verge of losing consciousness, Armstrong found focus and through fading vision was able to isolate the offending thruster.

The testing of the astronauts was not just a matter of spinning: they were probed and prodded in literally every way imaginable. Pre Apollo, there was some concern as to how astronauts would manage the human waste that would be produced: one bright spark decided the best option would be to devise a diet that meant they would produce no waste for ten days. The test subjects in this group described the results on day 11 as traumatic. Not all ideas are good ideas [8].

Much of this human testing was done in the dark: there was little idea of the strains and stresses that would assail a human body in space, so the approach was a mixture of considered planning, and wild speculation. A finger in the air.

Leadership Reflections

  • Capability is contextual: a legacy of success does not guarantee future success.
  • Testing is only of value if we understand the parameters of operation: just poking things may be fun, but is not necessarily valuable.
  • Split second brilliance probably has a foundation in decades of experience.
  • Innovation may occur despite, or in opposition to, the system, not necessarily nurtured or permitted by it.
  • Not all brilliant ideas are brilliant: humility is a core trait of leadership.
  • Simulations can be useful to build specific capability, but generalised capability is important too.

Notes

[1] I feel sure that this figure was In Morton (2019), but it’s on my fact checking list as i cannot locate it again now.

[2] Something that Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores eloquently in his work on Black Swans, and i have previously explored in my own work on Brittle Systems and the limitations of formal hierarchy. https://julianstodd.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/the-limits-of-hierarchy-brittle-systems/

[3] In Morton, 2019, who provides an interesting review of the speculative historical literature on the lunar experience from before we actually visited the surface.

[4] and [5] Software became a huge effort for Apollo, with over 350,000 words of programmes, and 175 programmers, supported by 200 hardware engineers (in ‘Computers in Spaceflight: the NASA experience’, author uncredited).

[6] See ‘Computers in Spaceflight: the NASA experience’ for a detailed explanation of the technical dimensions of this, that i won’t attempt to replicate.

[7] Chaikin (1994) provides a great chapter on the simulation of the moon landings, and a perspective on Armstrong’s desire to take control.

[8] In the event, defecation was handled with plastic bags with adhesive strips. For urination, a condom type attachment to a pipe was needed. In an aside that speaks somewhat to the mentality of astronauts, these caused some problems with leakage in the early days, the condoms being provided in ‘small’, ‘medium’, and ‘large’. The issue resolved itself when the next batch were badged ‘Large’, ‘extra large’, and ‘extra extra large’.

Bibliography and further reading

Chaikin, Andrew (1994): A man on the moon: the voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Penguin, London.

Aldrin, Buzz (2009): ‘Magnificent Desolation: the long journey home from the moon. Bloomsbury, London.

Riles, Christopher, and Dolling, Phil (2009): ‘NASA Mission AS506, Apollo 11, 1969 (including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5), Owners’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Woods, David (2016): ‘NASA Saturn V, 1967-1973 (Apollo 4 to Apollo 17 & Skylab), Owner’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Morton, Oliver (2019): ‘The Moon’. Profile Books, London.

Lovell, James, and Kluger, Jeffrey (2015): ‘Apollo 13’. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Mailer, Norman, (2009): ‘Moonfire’. Taschen, Germany.

Muir-Harmony, Teasel and Collins, Michael (2018): ‘A history in 50 objects – Apollo to the moon’. National Geographic, Washington DC.

Day, Dwayne (2006): ‘Saturn’s fury: effects of a Saturn 5 launch pad explosion’. http://www.TheSpaceReview.com (retrieved 23rd July 2019) http://www.thespacereview.com/article/591/1

Kranz, Gene (2000): ‘Failure is not an option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and beyond’. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Nelson, Craig (2010): ‘Rocket Men: the epic story of the first men on the moon’. John Murray, London.

‘Computers in Spaceflight: the NASA Experience – Chapter Nine – Making New Reality: Computers in Simulations and Image Processing’ https://history.nasa.gov/computers/Ch9-2.html (Retrieved 25th July 2019)

Stodd, Julian (2016): ‘The Limits of Hierarchy – Brittle Systems’. https://julianstodd.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/the-limits-of-hierarchy-brittle-systems/ retrieved 26th July 2019

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#WorkingOutLoud on the Apollo Leadership Reflections: Simulation

I failed to complete the chapter on ‘Simulation and Testing’ today, but will share the introductory paragraphs as part of #WorkingOutLoud. I hope to complete it tomorrow, or early next week.

Chapter 5: Simulation and Testing

There is one discipline that Apollo progressed with remarkable vigour: developing simulations to train and test the astronauts for what may happen, and testing their physical and mental prowess, to see how prepared they were for the challenge. In total, the Apollo astronauts spent around a third of their total training time in simulators [1]. But all of this testing was in respect of a new domain: nobody was sure quite how the craft would behave, and nobody was certain how a human would stand up to the stresses and strains of space flight.

The technical simulators served two functions: to train astronauts on the correct functioning of systems, and collections of systems, and, secondly, to build resilience per the failure of these systems. Simulations thus tended towards the connected, or the dastardly, reflecting the dichotomy at the heart of the training: time on connected simulations allowed an astronaut to rehearse, and master, every aspect of the mission, in sequence, in an environment that as closely mirrored the expected reality as possible, time on the dastardly would test them in the ways to recover when things went wrong.

But things go wrong in innumerable ways: if the outcome of every simulation was failure, a crash, then that could be both disheartening, and counter productive. But if every simulation was too easy, or predictable, it would add no real resilience, broad capability, or learning.

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Leadership Reflections from Apollo at 50: Failure, Complexity, and Control

This post is #WorkingOutLoud, sharing a draft chapter from my upcoming Social Age Guidebook on ‘Apollo: Leadership Reflections from the Space Race’. It’s not proofed or finalised yet, so please treat it kindly.

Failure is not an option” is the title of Gene Kranz’s book, providing a comprehensive overview of Mission Control, from it’s inception, through his time as Flight Director. Today it is a rather jaded expression: more a machismo assertion of power than a guiding principle. Jaded by it’s application in contexts that do not justify it, or to systems that can never guarantee it. Failure is always an option, possibly the default one.

Of course, in one of those narrative ironies, Kranz never used the phrase himself: it was written by the screenwriters for the Apollo 13 film, and then sounded so good that Kranz took the fictitious words that he never uttered and made them his own [1].

But even if he never used the words, the statement reflected a real mindset of the time. Mission Control was built around a new paradigm: an approach of systematised problem solving and connected knowledge hitherto unknown. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Apollo: the way that they had to invent the rocket, and invent the systems of oversight and control to actually use it.

Before it, the Manhattan Project had tamed, then unleashed, the power of the atom bomb: a programme of great complexity, and secrecy, with the ultimate aim to take life away. Apollo worked on a different, scale in both directions: it needed more people to design and build it, but it aimed only to affect three people as a result. And it was designed to keep them alive [2].

When the Saturn V rocket launched, it had the potential to detonate with one twenty sixth the power of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima: a not inconsiderable challenge to life and limb if you were sat atop it [3].

Assuming the craft survived launch, a mission to the moon may last a number of weeks: during all that time, there was the constant need to monitor systems, identify and mitigate risks, dynamically adapt the schedule, and react to emergent issues, be they human or mechanical.

Travelling on earth is risky because of dangers that turn up and kill us, but broadly, the default state is life: to starve, dehydrate, or succumb to illness usually takes time. Life can be lost suddenly to accidents, but even then there is a chance of extraction or treatment for broken limbs. Beyond the limits of our atmosphere though, the default state is death, with no prospect of rescue, or resuscitation. Any leak, or mechanical failure, one single wrong decision, can instantly cause a disaster. Space is very unforgiving like that.

In such situations, we rely on protective systems: the technology of Apollo can, in that sense, be seen in two contexts. The first is transport, to get us to the moon and back, with the various permutations of craft, and staged launch. The second is to preserve life, through life support systems (when things are going well), and emergency protocols (to recover when they don’t). Apollo can, in this sense be seen as a project that lofted a small bubble of our earth’s atmosphere safety to the moon, and retrieved it days later. The entire programme represents a series of connected, and nested, bubbles. Space suits themselves are small space ships, capable of preserving life.

Gene Kranz, as Flight Director, was responsible for the systems that facilitated both those ends: to successfully propel three men to the moon and back, and to ensure they stayed alive whilst making the journey. And to do so meant inventing an entire discipline of Mission Control.

Whilst images of the Control centre show lines of desks, and serried ranks of white shirted men, the reality for the astronauts in the Command Module was somewhat different: for them, it was largely a conversation with a friend.

The hierarchy of Mission Control relied on principles of specialism (experts on hand), aggregation (the interaction between disciplines: combinant effects), filtering (signal from noise, and both the timeliness, and relevance to the matter at hand [4] ), structured decision making (reporting lines that accounted for dependencies and causality, in the days before computers could do this), and flow (the right knowledge or decision points in the right hands, ‘just in time’, before JIT was a thing).

The entire apparatus was intended to funnel down to two individuals: the Flight Director, and CapCom (the Capsule Communicator). The Flight Director made the calls, and the CapCom was the only person who routinely could speak to the astronauts. There was no free for all, no cluttered radio chatter, but rather one voice, and a voice that they could trust.

The CapCom was typically a fellow astronaut, maybe from the backup team, who would have trained alongside the men in space, and who would know what they needed, what they were feeling, and how to convey complex information fast, but with empathy. Sometimes the role of CapCom was to know what not to ask: the astronauts were superb, but not super-human. Sometimes they got tired, annoyed, frustrated, probably even scared. In these times, the CapCom had his finger on the balance of the scales.

If the Flight Director sat at the centre of the web, with CapCom by his side, the lines that radiated out represented each unique function, or specialism, that was needed to launch and retrieve the capsule. Each line, each individual, was referred to by their acronym [5], so to listen to the recordings of the missions is to hear a terse to-and-fro, peppered by the jargon and terminology that enabled efficiency and accuracy in flow.

  • CONTROL was a Lunar Module engineer, with responsibility for propulsion, abort guidance, navigation, and the onboard computers.
  • EECOM was responsible for electrical, environmental, communications, cryogenic, fuel cells, pyrotechnic, and structural systems.
  • FIDO was the flight dynamics officer, who specialised in launch and orbit trajectories (which may dynamically change as issues emerged).
  • FOD was the flight operations director.
  • GNC looked after guidance, navigation, and control systems for altitude, as well as aspects of computer hardware.
  • GUIDO was a specialist in navigation and software.
  • INCO looked after instrumentation, communications, command, and the live television systems for the Command Module, Lunar Module, any Extra Vehicular Activities, and for the Lunar Rover in later missions.
  • PAO was the public affairs officer, whole job was to filter and release information to the press and public.
  • RETRO, the retrofire officer, specialised in the final re-entry trajectories for return.
  • SimSup led the training team, who tested both astronauts, and the entire Mission Control team, to the limit.
  • SPAN, the spacecraft analysis team, could access the broader design and manufacturing teams spread around the country.

It’s worth noting that many of the men who held these positions were in their early twenties, literally making up the rules as they went.

Kranz described how, when he joined the precursor Mercury programme, he was tasked with creating the Mission Rules, and training approaches, which simply did not exist. It was a monumental effort, equal to the technology taking shape in the laboratories, and through a series of conflagrations on the launch pads.

Manned space flight is just that: manned. The men in the capsule, and the men (and very small number of women) in Mission Control and beyond.

From inception, NASA was military in approach, but civilian in operation. Certainly many people fell out of assorted aviation programmes to land at NASA, but when there, they were thrust into new jobs in new disciplines. Apollo was all about learning.

Space Flight is risky, but success does not lie in avoiding, or mitigating, all the risk: it’s typically about understanding how risk flows and, critically, cascades. When does one failure lead to another, and when does it sit in isolation. When is one failure acceptable, and when is it not an option. What is the critical path, and how do we navigate it without the system, freezing up.

Things didn’t start out complex, but they sure as heck got that way in the end, partly because of the mechanisms by which lessons were learnt, and codified.

In 1960, when Kranz was tasked with writing those first Mission Rules, he literally started with a blank sheet of paper. By 1969, when Apollo 11 launched, things had changed: they worked to a 1,700 page launch plan. Similarly, the approach to rockets had evolved, from the early rocket clubs, that took their charges out into a field and lit the fuse, to the Saturn V, which was subjected to every test known to man, and then some. In total, each craft underwent 587,500 forms of inspection through it’s lifecycle [6].

When a lesson was learnt, it was documented, and appropriate procedures captured and codified, and each lesson built upon the last. The effort was additive. By the time Apollo 11 flew, over thirty thousand printed pages were needed to check out the vehicle. Rocco Petrone, the launch operations director, said, “In our testing we had a building block approach, very logical, very methodical; you built each test on the last test, and the whole sequence expanded in the process“ [7].

It’s worth noting that the Saturn V was engineered to tolerate failure: built to an engineering reliability target of 99.9%, a pragmatic recognition that failure is always an option. With six million parts, that meant that at every launch six thousand elements may statistically fail. And still the rocket would fly.

Triple redundancy, and an engineering approach that tried to bypass cascade failures meant that in all thirteen missions that Saturn V flew, not one blew up on the launch pad. A matter of considerable surprise to all involved.

Leadership Reflections

  1. Complexity is engineered, and can be additive. Without the correct webs of sense making, it can be crippling.
  2. Systems are themselves engineered, they do not necessarily operate within a known paradigm. Conversely, extant systems can trap us within known paradigms. The context of Apollo gave explicit permission to bring the best of the old, but create something new.
  3. Creating more noise is easy: filtering, and communicating, effectively, is the hard part.
  4. Failure is always an option, and may be the default state.

Notes

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Kranz

[2] The Manhattan Project [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project] employed an estimated 130,000 people, whilst Apollo is reckoned to have taken over 400,000 [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_program].

[3] To create a safety margin around the Apollo launches, the two launch pads were situated in a remote area, surrounded by marshland, and far from habitation. Even so, had a rocket detonated on the pad, it would have excavated a significant crater. Studies were carried out to ascertain just how large, predominantly to inform the design of the escape system, intended to carry the Comma Module away from the inferno in the event of catastrophic failure. By their own admission, the authors of the final report admitted that much of their work was based on calculated guesses (Day, 2006). In the dynamic context of an exploding rocket, there were just too many variables at play.

[4] Apollo 13, the story told in the Tom Hanks film of the same name, reflected this in great detail: not all problems were solved at once, but rather the most critical for life were solved first, despite not knowing if subsequent issues were solvable at all. One of the most interesting observations is how some factors were just accepted as risk e.g. the SR1 motor that would lift from the moon had no backup, hence no contingency, hence could not be modelled for anything other than a success of failure state.

[5] Definitions and roles derived from Kranz (2000).

[6] Tests included fire, ice, collision, shock, vibration, dust, and rain.

[7] Quoted in Nelson (2010)

Bibliography and further reading

Chaikin, Andrew (1994): A man on the moon: the voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Penguin, London.

Aldrin, Buzz (2009): ‘Magnificent Desolation: the long journey home from the moon. Bloomsbury, London.

Riles, Christopher, and Dolling, Phil (2009): ‘NASA Mission AS506, Apollo 11, 1969 (including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5), Owners’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Woods, David (2016): ‘NASA Saturn V, 1967-1973 (Apollo 4 to Apollo 17 & Skylab), Owner’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Morton, Oliver (2019): ‘The Moon’. Profile Books, London.

Lovell, James, and Kluger, Jeffrey (2015): ‘Apollo 13’. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Mailer, Norman, (2009): ‘Moonfire’. Taschen, Germany.

Muir-Harmony, Teasel and Collins, Michael (2018): ‘A history in 50 objects – Apollo to the moon’. National Geographic, Washington DC.

Day, Dwayne (2006): ‘Saturn’s fury: effects of a Saturn 5 launch pad explosion’. http://www.TheSpaceReview.com (retrieved 23rd July 2019) http://www.thespacereview.com/article/591/1

Kranz, Gene (2000): ‘Failure is not an option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and beyond’. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Nelson, Craig (2010): ‘Rocket Men: the epic story of the first men on the moon’. John Murray, London.

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