At the biggest moment in NASA astronaut Mike Massimino’s career, on a 2009 spacewalk to repair the Hubble space telescope’s most important scientific instrument and “save astronomy,” the first, simplest step went wrong, endangering the mission.
In that moment, Massimino called on the four leadership lessons that he and his fellow astronauts had mastered throughout their careers: Purpose, perseverance, preparation and teamwork.
The combination saved Hubble that day in 2009, keeping astronomy alive until the James Webb telescope comes online later this year. Those same leadership lessons, Massimino said at the recent Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE Forum in Florida, can help business executives lead their companies through turmoil and disruption.
“These are times of great change,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just that things are maturing and technology is changing and you’re trying to anticipate that. And then you’re hit with something like a pandemic, and you have to change again and pivot and figure it out. Reach out to your teams, your colleagues and support staff. Remember the importance of persistence and not settling for second best or just OK; really shoot for that North Star. That may mean investing more effort and more expense, but it’s all worth it because you’re working on sustainability and better healthcare and other projects that are really worthwhile.”
LESSON 1: PURPOSE SETS A CLEAR COURSE
To illustrate those four leadership lessons, the amiable astronaut, author and Big Bang Theory guest star told the story of that day in May 2009 when a long-fought-for mission to repair the Hubble’s most important instrument nearly failed.
Both of Massimino’s spaceflights, in 2003 and 2009, focused on keeping the Hubble space telescope operating. On both missions the team’s purpose was crystal clear: “Save astronomy.”
The team nearly lost that opportunity in the wake of the February 1, 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion. For the next four years, NASA focused its attention not on mounting missions to space, but on diagnosing the problem and developing plans for shuttle flights to resume safely.
When they did, NASA decided that work to complete the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) could continue, because the station offered life support in case of emergency. Hubble, in a completely different orbit 100 miles farther from Earth, did not. Due to the lack of life support, NASA canceled the repair mission that would have put Hubble’s most important instrument back in service.
STEP 2: PERSEVERANCE OVERCOMES OBSTACLES
The decision was a tough blow for the Hubble team to accept.
“We didn’t want the Columbia disaster to take more than our friends,” Massimino said. “We wanted to continue with the program and service Hubble one more time.”
And so the Hubble team persevered, buckling down to develop a proposal that could overcome NASA’s concerns.
“Everyone stayed very focused on what was best for the telescope and for the program and for science, on the information and the data and the understanding that Hubble could bring to us if we repaired it and kept it going,” Massimino said. “I think it’s the greatest scientific instrument ever built, and that gave us great purpose to help the astronomers continue to do their great work. Realizing that kept us going.”
It’s easy to be passionate about the Hubble space telescope because its discoveries are “all public domain, and not just for Americans but for everyone in the world,” Massimino wrote in his best-selling autobiography Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. “It’s done solely for the enrichment of our fellow man, and that’s an incredible thing. The need to explore, in its purest sense, is always driven by the desire for knowledge itself, and that principle is so important that people are willing to risk their lives for it . . . Which is why we weren’t going to let our telescope die without a fight.”
The team worked diligently on a plan to make the repairs with a robot they could maneuver remotely from Earth, but continued to lobby NASA’s leaders that the most important operations required a human touch. When a new NASA administrator arrived, the team took the opportunity to make an audacious proposal to improve safety: prepare a second shuttle to rescue the crew if Atlantis sustained launch damage and couldn’t return.
NASA agreed. For the first time in history, when STS-125 took off in May of 2009, a second shuttle stood ready for launch on an adjoining pad.
LESSON 3: PREPARATION HELPS WITH THE UNEXPECTED, TOO
Atlantis didn’t need rescuing. But the mission’s most important task – replacing the main power supply on the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) – did.
The STIS, used to conduct 30% of Hubble’s research, had stopped working when its power supply module failed in August 2004. Its main jobs also were Hubble’s most important ones: studying the relationship of black holes to their host galaxies, and searching the atmospheres of distant planets for environments that could sustain life.
To protect Hubble’s instruments during launch, NASA engineers buried them beneath layers of insulation, covered them with heavy hatches and sealed everything with bolts. To access the STIS power supply, working in gloves he describes as “oven mitts,” Massimino had to remove a metal clamp secured by two torque-set screws; a handrail held by four hex-head screws and washers, all glued in place for an air-tight seal; a panel held by 111 miniscule screws and washers; and a rubber gasket. Then he had to cut the power supply’s ground wire, unlatch the channel locks holding it in place, slide it out perfectly flat, and slide in its replacement the same way, all without damaging any of the pins in the 120-pin connector.
Most challenging of all, he had to do it without leaving behind “a loose screw, a speck of dust or a particle of gas,” any of which could shut down Hubble’s eye in the sky.
NASA is famous for intense preparation, and Massimino had practiced the entire mission hundreds of times. Some of the practice runs involved physical mockups of the obstacles he would encounter. Others were performed underwater, to simulate the effects of weightlessness. The most valuable, he said, involved virtual reality – simulations that couldn’t be replicated physically on earth.
“We call them virtual reality simulations, but Dassault Systémes calls them virtual twins, which is a term I really like,” Massimino told his Florida audience. “Especially on my first flight, I felt like I was training for the biggest event in my professional life, the equivalent of the Super Bowl or the World Cup, but I had to play the game without ever walking onto the practice field.
“Thanks to the virtual training I had, the first time I saw Hubble in person I felt like I’d done the task hundreds of times. It helped us with designing our tools, planning our missions, finding and fixing the problems we hadn’t anticipated. It’s invaluable.”
That intense preparation proved vital on the day of the STIS repair spacewalk. The first three screws holding the handrail came out easily. The fourth one, dabbed with a bit too much glue years earlier, stuck fast. Unable to budge it, the power screwdriver stripped the head, leaving just a nub.
Massimino remembers a few moments of panic: would he be remembered forever as the astronaut who doomed Hubble?
LESSON 4: TEAMWORK MAKES EVERYONE STRONGER
Then his leadership lessons kicked in. He wasn’t alone; he had a great team behind him, on the shuttle and on Earth. He had a great purpose to strengthen his resolve. He was a master of persistence, enduring three failed applications and an intense program of retraining his vision before winning his spot as an astronaut, six years of training to get his first spacewalk assignment, and seven more years to earn his second trip. In addition to his teammates, he also could call on the experience gained through thousands of hours of physical and virtual training.
“No one particular thing about being an astronaut was difficult,” Massimino said. “It’s just that making mistakes along the way could carry such a large penalty. So it was important to understand that the only way you’re going to be successful is if you all work together. No one person could do it on their own. It took all of us, keeping the passion and the purpose in mind and never forgetting that, while individual accomplishment is good, what really matters is the mission.”
“No one person could do it on their own. It took all of us, keeping the passion and the purpose in mind and never forgetting that, while individual accomplishment is good, what really matters is the mission.”Mike Massimino
Former NASA Astronaut, speaking about the power of teamwork
As his teammates suggested a series of fixes, Massimino traveled the length of the shuttle – a delicate balancing act on a narrow rail – between the toolbox at one end of the service bay and the Hubble space telescope at the other. Terrified of heights (“not a great thing for an astronaut,” he jokes), he made the harrowing trip eight times.
But nothing they tried could budge the bolt. And, if they didn’t find a solution soon, Massimino knew he wouldn’t have enough life support remaining to finish the job.
Then a colleague called from Mission Control with an idea developed by the Earth-based team: Cover the screw with the tape you picked up on that last trip to the toolbox to catch any debris, he suggested, then grab the handle and pull it free.
Massimino – call sign MASS, in part because of his height – felt a surge of confidence. This he could do. He pulled on the handle twice to loosen it, then yanked. The handle came off cleanly, with just enough time remaining to complete the more difficult tasks.
Together, with persistence, planning, and purpose, the STS-125 crew’s teamwork saved astronomy.
THE NEW LEADERSHIP IMPERATIVE: SAVING EARTH
Although his astronaut days are behind him, Massimino still marvels at the beauty and delicate atmosphere of Earth viewed from space. “It’s a place – a home – we all share. It’s also fragile, and we don’t have any other options.”
At the 3DEXPERIENCE Forum, he urged his audience to commit their companies’ engineering expertise to saving Earth, using virtual twins to design, test, refine and sustainably manufacture sustainable solutions to climate change.
“Everything I saw at the conference was important, whether you’re designing an electric car or figuring out how to build a factory with sustainability in mind,” Massimino said. “Every one of those companies is doing something worthwhile that makes the world a better place. That’s where the passion and the purpose comes from: keeping the big picture in mind.”
A NEW ERA OF LEADERSHIP: SPACE PRIVATIZATION
Massimino also has high hopes for the privatization of space.
“When we first heard that NASA had decided to put future launches into the hands of private industry, working with SpaceX, Boeing and several other companies, a lot of us didn’t like the idea,” he told the Florida audience. “But when we started to see what they could do we were pretty impressed. When private enterprise gets involved in things, they can look at challenges differently than the government can, and that has turned out to be a great change.”
Although private companies must be profitable to survive, Massimino also is confident that they will continue to put the interests of humanity ahead of profit. Both SpaceX and BlueOrigin, for example, have taken student experiments into space.
“The [private space companies] I’ve worked with are doing it, for the most part, for very good reasons,” he said. “They’re looking at it for exploration and discovery, and for ways to help preserve the Earth by looking at things we can do off the Earth, rather than polluting our home. They’re also increasing access to space so that people with bright ideas for new medicines and new materials can do their research.”
Technology plays an important role in enabling the privatization of space, Massimino said.
“The shuttle was primarily a manually flown vehicle. These spaceships are almost like amusement park rides; with a little bit of training you can get in and go. They’re safer. They require less training, so more people can go to space. They’re reusable, which improves sustainability and drives down the cost.
“You can’t use taxpayer dollars for everything, so you’re never going to be able to do everything you want to do in space without private enterprise,” he said. “Yes, they need to stay profitable and pay the bills, but they can take on a lot more than we [the US space program] ever could.”
Massimino’s parting words of wisdom to the 3DEXPERIENCE Forum audience?
“When things get tough and change is coming and you need to pivot, just remember how important the work you’re doing is. And always keep the big picture in mind.”