At ISACA’s North America CACS conference this April, former Space Shuttle Astronaut Mike Mullane delivers the closing keynote titled “Countdown to Teamwork.” We chatted with Mike, a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions who has logged more than 356 hours in space, about his presentation.
ISACA: What is an example of astronauts' reliance on IT during space missions?
Mike: On an early Space Shuttle mission, the center liquid-fueled engine shut down well before the vehicle had reached orbit, resulting in a launch abort (a very serious situation). The vehicle was too far from Florida to turn around and return. The crew could only continue toward a lower—hopefully safe—orbit. The commander selected the “Abort To Orbit” option on the abort-selection switch. That switch had never been touched in flight and would never again be touched in the remainder of the Space Shuttle program. While the software behind an ATO abort selection had been tested over and over in ground-based simulations, this wasn’t a simulation. This was the real world and any mistake in the abort software could have resulted in the loss of the vehicle and crew. But there were no errors and the transition from “normal” ascent-operation software to the ATO launch-abort software package was seamless. The vehicle achieved a lower—but safe—orbit. There were a lot of white knuckles in the cockpit and Mission Control when the commander turned the instrument-panel dial to the ATO abort mode and hit the engage button. The software engineers and testers had saved the day by delivering error-free software.
ISACA: How did technology change over the course of your career as an astronaut?
Mike: There were huge changes in technology over the 30-year span of the shuttle program. For personal entertainment on my missions (in 1984, 1988 and 1990), NASA provided each crew member a Sony Walkman. We were allowed to carry six cassettes loaded with whatever music we might like to listen to in orbit. In those same missions, there were no digital cameras. We used Hasselblad film cameras. There was no Internet or fax to connect the crew with mission control. To send daily updates to our mission plans and checklists, we depended upon a cockpit teletype machine. We had no GPS to determine vehicle position over Earth, instead relying upon an inertial measuring unit and updates from ground-tracking radars. The vehicle computer screens were monochrome and, on some displays, we had to enter and interpret hexadecimal digits. Only on my last mission in 1990 did we have a monochrome, early IBM ThinkPad laptop that had the software to display our ground track over Earth. The ship’s computers didn’t have enough memory for the “luxury” of providing such a display, and contrary to what you might believe, it can be very difficult to locate yourself by just looking out the window. By the end of the shuttle program (and aboard the International Space Station) there was Internet access, email capability, Skype, digital cameras, voice recognition to control some equipment, etc. None of this existed in the early shuttle program.
ISACA: What is your definition of “normalization of deviance"? Why must one guard against it?
Mike: Normalization of deviance is a phenomenon in which individuals or teams repeatedly accept a deviance from best practices until that deviance becomes the norm. Usually, the acceptance of the deviance occurs because the individual/team is under pressure (budget, schedule, etc.) and perceives it will be too difficult to adhere to the best-practice standard while executing the mission. When there are no immediate negative consequences to taking best-practice shortcuts (the usual outcome) a false feedback is signaled as to the “rightness” of that decision. This emboldens the individual/team to take future shortcuts when the same pressure circumstances exist. Eventually, with repeated success in shortcutting best practices, the shortcut (deviance) becomes the norm. Normalization of deviance leads to “predictable surprises” which are invariably disastrous to the team. The Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy was a predictable surprise.
Want more? Join Mike at North America CACS 2014 this March in Las Vegas, Nevada. Learn more here.