Flight is the autobiography of Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director. I know what you’re thinking – NASA + rocket science + an administrator as the author = boring book. Wrong. Kraft tells you how it was and what he thought through every step of the program AND he names names. It’s not a politically correct look at our space program which is part of what makes this book so good.
The other part is the incredible insight on leadership and risk.
Some nuggets from Kraft:
Ruthlessly evaluate everything. After every mission, exercise, test and simulation he gathered all the principles and had a “Sweaty Palms Session.” It’s a no-holds barred critique of every aspect of the activity. No one is immune from criticism and there are no job titles or position once the session begins. EVERY SINGLE PERSON got held under the microscope.
Even the Flight Director – who is basically God on space missions. No one can question his authority or orders during a mission. He is the final say of every single issue. Once the mission is over, he sits in the Sweaty Palms Session just like every one else and takes his medicine. If you couldn’t handle that kind of honesty and evaluation, you weren’t needed at NASA. Instead of alienating co-workers and creating a cut-throat culture, it did the opposite. They had an atmosphere of utmost trust and purpose. The focus was on getting better, not stroking egos. “The mission is more important than me.”
Simple is better. This was about both rocket-design and the leadership structure of an organization. Kraft notes that most of the fixes on spacecraft were simple. It’s not that they were opposed to big, extravagant fixes. It’s just that the more extravagant the fix, the more new problems it seemed to create.
This same principle applied to the leadership structure at NASA. Kraft notes that the early years of NASA were so effective in terms of time and money because they flatlined the authority structure. There were no levels of buerocracy to fight through or politicians to please. The mission was the job and whatever advanced the mission was quickly implemented and adopted. As NASA grew and added more committees and more politicians, they not only lost their effectiveness but their vision and purpose. You can sense Kraft’s hatred of what NASA had become after Apollo. He hated it because vision was replaced with politics.
Kraft noted that the lower down the hierarchy an idea originates, the better it is. The higher up the chain of command, the more out of touch it is. Kraft was adamant that front-line personnel make flight policy and procedures, not administrators. The higher-ups tend to make policies for themselves, the front-line people tend to make decisions for the betterment of the mission.
There is safe, then there is too safe. Kraft noted many times in the book that there was a limit to being safe. The very mission was to explore space, put men on the moon. None of that is safe and anyone who signed up to be a part of that knew that. In fact, the risk was part of the reason they were signing up in the first place. Kraft walked the line of not being afraid to take risks versus putting yourself needlessly at risk. The US could have beat the Russians into space but politicians made things too safe – like sending multiple missions of chimps into space. Kraft notes that now we know that the US was technology ahead of the Russians in every aspect of the space race since Sputnik. The difference was the Soviets took risks – some would argue needlessly.
Kraft points out a couple of missions where they were being too safe and it almost ended up being more dangerous.
Vision is what drives people. Not policies. Kraft ends his book with a series of questions that probably critique current space exploration more than any diatribe. He asks when will we being going to Mars? What’s the big goal of NASA and space exploration right now? The silence screams more than anything else. When asked about the justification of spending the money on that in light of wars, homelessness, poverty, and other social needs, Kraft cuts to the core. With out the space race, there would be no remote monitoring of health patients, laptop computers, countless other technological advances that have helped our world. The residual of the space race was good for all. Kraft said he couldn’t imagine living through the ’60s without the space race. It seemed to be the only good, unifying, constructive thing occurring in that decade.
If you are a space-geek, loved Apollo 13 and From The Earth To The Moon – get this book and read it.