SKYLAB AND OUR GOLDEN ERA – Part Five – Space Leadership
11 Dec 2012 Nuradmin 0
SKYLAB AND OUR GOLDEN ERA – Part Five – Space Leadership
by Ed Gibson
Leadership is incessant. Leaders of past centuries exhibited traits common to those behind our initial surge into space over the past half century—our Golden Era. Examine them and we can learn much about meeting leadership demands of today and tomorrow.
We now recognize Robert Goddard as the Father of American Rocketry, even though over 80 years ago he was being continuously ridiculed for his obsessive “playing” with rockets. But he had the vision and courage to persist, and spaceflight is much further ahead today because he did.
Likewise, Charles Lindbergh was a pioneer in aviation, which itself provided the base on which spaceflight was built. His aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, now hangs in the Smithsonian just as it did when I stared up at it in awe as a kid. No one can picture flying that small, frail aircraft into the darkness over the cold Atlantic without admiring his courage to demonstrate his vision. Great vision followed up by matching courage are traits common to great leaders.
Along with great technical leaders, others with vision and courage are also required – those who control the money. Such a man was John F. Kennedy who in 1961 challenged our nation to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. His vision was bold and he had the courage to support it with action. Our Nation followed with enthusiasm and determination as our Golden Era kicked off.
A dynamic leader behind the Saturn Rocket Program, who helped make Apollo and Skylab possible, was Wernher von Braun. He built large boosters, first in Germany, then with NASA. No doubt his role in WWII made him a controversial figure when he was brought over to this country and still even now. However, as I worked with him in the 60’s and 70’s, I found him to be not only a great visionary and engineer, but also a great leader because he also demonstrated a fierce commitment to the program and his team. In those years, I found him to be very easy to like and respect.
There are many leaders on the ground that contribute to mission success. But none are more important than each Director of a Flight Control Team. Every Director has to be immersed all of the technical details, execute strategy and tactics sometimes in time-critical situations, and lead a team of hundreds of controllers and technicians. One of the best ever was Gene Kranz. He was highly mission focused as well as tough and demanding. Fortunately, Gene was the lead Flight Director on Apollo 13. By being encouraging yet demanding, he made sure that everyone on that mission fully believed that, “failure is not an option,” was not just a slogan but absolutely had to be reality!
Great leaders can arise from anywhere. But sometimes they’re difficult to spot because their internal fires don’t always shine through. One such person was just one of hundreds of B-25 pilots in WWII. They were all hard chargers. They had to be. But this guy also had exceptional vision and mission focus. After the war, he graduated from college, then test pilot school. In 1959, the newly formed NASA was looking for just this kind of guy. Thus, Deke Slayton became one of the Original 7 Astronauts.
But before he could fly, the doctors detected a heart murmur and he was grounded. Although bitterly disappointed, he chose not to quit but rather to contribute wherever he could. So, he traded in his space suit for a business suit. Because he had little management experience, NASA took a chance when they appointed him head of Flight Operations where he was responsible for all the astronauts, flight controllers, aircraft operations as well as all of the supporting facilities and equipment—a big job.
At the height of the lunar program, Deke held the reins of over 40 head-strong astronauts. Each one of us was always charging off in our own direction, always doing our own thing. It was like trying to keep socks on an octopus. But he tightly reined in every one of us because we recognized that he was not only tough but extremely mission focused. That is, if you were there, like him, to advance the mission, he gave you his full support. But if you were there more to advance yourself, he’d rip out the flame thrower and turn you to a crisp in nothing flat. Deke was the right guy for the job.
After 14 years, the doctors finally relented, and Deke got to fly on Apollo-Soyuz, the first joint American-Soviet mission in 1975. His persistence had paid off.
From many years of close personal experience, I’ve come to regard Deke Slayton as one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever personally known. As he demanded an overwhelming focus on the mission, he was tough but fair, harsh but kind, someone you respected, trusted, liked, and feared all at the same time. Working for Deke was an exciting education and a privilege. Today, we certainly could use more Deke Slaytons.
Another exceptional leader was George Low who took over the Apollo Program after the fire that killed three crewmen during a ground test. He controlled all of the major technical changes made to the program, which at that time were numerous. Besides being an extremely competent engineer and manager, he was also principled and persistent in all that he did. For example, when he made a large or controversial decision, he took the time and effort to individually call in each of the leaders of the teams whose proposals he had rejected and explain to them his reasoning. It was a difficult, time-consuming practice that generated nothing but respect for him and the decision making process.
What made America so successful in our Golden Era of human space exploration? It had a lot to do with the vision, courage, commitment, mission focus, and persistence of many great leaders throughout the government and contractor communities.
Regardless of what happens to our Nation and its human space program in the future, this Golden Era stands out as one of mankind’s most notable achievements. All of us who observed or participated were very fortunate to do so.