An intriguing story
Hello there! It’s Monday, and I’m back with a story that will alter your perspective.
This week’s story follows [Luca Parmitano], a young astronaut who finds himself in a life-threatening situation.
As an avid scuba diver, Luca Parmitano was familiar with the risks of drowning. He just didn’t realize it could happen in outer space.
Luca has just become the world’s youngest astronaut, traveling to the International Space Station for the first time. The 36-year-old Italian astronaut did his first spacewalk in July 2013, spending six hours doing experiments, moving equipment, and connecting power and data connections. After a week, Luca and another astronaut, Chris Cassidy, were planning a second walk to complete their work and perform some maintenance. They could see the Earth 250 miles below them as they prepared to exit the airlock.
Luca noticed something weird after 40 minutes in space: the back of his head appeared to be moist. He had no idea where the water came from. It wasn’t just a bother; it had the potential to shut off communication by shorting out his microphone or earphones. Chris questioned if he was sweating when he reported the matter to Mission Control in Houston. “I’m sweating,” Luca admitted, “but it’s a lot of water.” It’s only in my Snoopy cap, and it’s not going away. Just a heads up.” He returned to work.
Karina Eversley, the officer in charge of spacewalks, sensed something was amiss. That wasn’t normal, she reasoned, and she promptly enlisted the help of a team of experts to draft a list of questions for Luca.
•Was there a rise in the amount of liquid? Luca had no idea.
•Is he certain it’s water?
•The taste was metallic as he put out his tongue to catch a few of the drops that were floating in his helmet.
The decision to end the spacewalk early was taken by Mission Control. To follow their tethers, which were routed in opposing directions, Luca and Chris had to split off. Luca rolled over to avoid an antenna. He couldn’t see or breathe clearly through his nose because globs of water were covering his eyes and filling his nostrils. The water was still rising, and he was in danger of drowning if it reached his mouth. His only option was to return to the airlock as swiftly as possible. Luca was surrounded by darkness as the sun set, with only a small headlight to guide him. Then his communications went down, and he couldn’t hear himself or anyone else.
Luca used his memories and the tension in his connection to find his way back to the airlock’s outer hatch. He was still in great danger: he’d have to wait for Chris to close the hatch and repressurize the airlock before removing his helmet. It was unknown if he would live for several excruciating minutes of stillness. A quart and a half of water was in his helmet when it was eventually safe to remove it, but Luca was still alive.
The episode would be dubbed the “scariest wardrobe malfunction in NASA history” months later. The technical updates came in quick succession. The leak was traced to a fan/pump/separator, which the spacesuit engineers fixed moving forward. They also had a snorkel-like breathing tube and a water-absorbing pad within the helmet.
The largest blunder, though, was not technical—it was human. Luca had detected several water droplets in his helmet when he returned from his first spacewalk a week before. He and Chris suspected they were caused by a leak in the bag that contained his suit’s drinking water, and the Houston team agreed. They replaced the bag just to be careful, but that was the end of the conversation.
The chief engineer of the space station, was in charge of the inquiry into what had gone wrong with Luca’s suit. “Minor levels of water in the helmet were adjusted,” he explained. “The view was that drink bags leak,” according to the space station community, “which led to an assumption that it was a likely explanation without probing more into it.” Luca’s fright wasn’t the first time NASA’s inability to reconsider had resulted in disaster.
After a catastrophically shallow investigation of the danger that round gaskets called O-rings could fail, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. Despite the fact that this had been listed as a launch constraint, NASA had a track record of successfully overriding it in previous flights with no issues. The O-ring securing the rocket booster joints ruptured on an exceptionally cold launch day, allowing hot gas to burn through the fuel tank, killing all seven Challenger astronauts.
Columbia, the space shuttle, disintegrated in similar circumstances in 2003. The ground crew noted that foam had dropped from the ship after departure, but most of them felt it wasn’t a big deal because it had happened before without problem. Instead of rethinking that assumption, they began debating what repairs would be made to the ship in order to decrease the turnaround time for the next mission. The foam loss was a serious issue since it damaged the leading edge of the wing, allowing hot gas to leak into the shuttle’s wing upon reentry into the atmosphere. All seven astronauts perished once more.
The Story’s Moral:
Rethinking isn’t only a personal trait. It is a collective capability that is highly influenced by an organization’s culture. NASA had long been a model of performance culture, with the highest priority placed on execution. Despite the fact that NASA accomplished incredible achievements, they were quickly victims of overconfidence cycles. People missed opportunities for reconsidering as they took pride in their standard operating procedures, grew belief in their routines, and saw their decisions confirmed by their results.
In a learning culture, where progress is valued and rethinking cycles are common, rethinking is more likely to occur. People in learning cultures are expected to know what they don’t know, to question their current habits, and to be curious about new routines to attempt.
This narrative is based on Adam Grant’s book “Think Again.”
Strategy. Business StartUps and Corporate Restructuring Consulting
Uwaoma Eizu is the lead strategist at Hexavia! He is a graduate of Mathematics with two MBAs and over a decade of experience working with startups and big businesses. His core is in building startups and in corporate restructuring. He is also a certified member of the Nigerian Institute of Management, Institute of Strategic Management of Nigeria and the Project Management Institute, USA. By the side, he writes weekly for the BusinessDay newspaper.