Those who choose not to heal

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Floral tributes at the Space Mirror memorial. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett, from the Day of Remembrance page.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’m a space geek. I want to know what’s up there, and I want to know how it got there. That counts whether it’s the stars in the sky (I’m a bit of an amateur stargazer), the satellites whizzing through it (my phone does ISS pass alerts and boy do I sprint to the window), or the best bit of TV drama I’ve seen in years.

I’ve been a space geek since I was a little kid; as I’ve previously written, like so many GenXers, I can identify the precise date and time when looking up caused me to grow up. In adulthood, I’ve found that there’s a lot to borrow from the space programme which can be applied to policy and regulation. I try to do that well. Others, well, they give me a decent laugh trying.

For space geeks, today is the pivotal day of the year. It’s not about a launch, or a milestone, or even a thing.

It’s the day when everyone stops and rips their own guts out.

Every year, in late January, NASA stages a Day of Remembrance. This is the day when they down tools and stop to remember the three missions that ended in fatalities, along with the fatalities that happened in training. (The three fatal missions all coincidentally happened within the same fortnight on the calendar, hence the late January commemoration.)

That downing of tools, and pauses for reflection, are not meant as exercises of mawkish self-pity. They are meant to drive home the message:

we screwed up. we made preventable mistakes. we got our own colleagues and friends killed. we lost people we cared about. we jeopardised the space programme itself. we did that. we all have a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again. we is us. we is you.

To that end, every year for the Day of Remembrance, NASA holds an all-staff town hall meeting which is livestreamed to all facilities. In it, NASA’s highest leadership – all of whom are former astronauts – do a remarkable thing.

They choose not to heal.

They stand before the people they lead and they rip their own scars open.

They talk about the people who saw the accidents taking shape, well before they happened, but who were censored by groupthink and organisational silence. They talk about what it was like to be standing there, on the tarmac, with the realisation hitting that their friends weren’t coming back. They talk about what NASA learned in the postmortem investigations, and how the truth was that each accident was completely preventable.

What’s remarkable about this talk is how they do it.

In what I sadly note is an increasingly rare thing for Americans, they don’t talk in therapy-speak, or throw in self-help psychobabble, or centre themselves in the experiences – meaning the deaths – of others. Instead, they speak slowly, and brutally, eyes puffy and voices choking. Everything they say always, always, comes back to those who died. It’s not an act. In fact, you’ve probably never seen leadership look as broken as this in public.

They are not putting themselves through this for an ego exercise, nor are they doing it for sympathy. They are doing so to instruct their entire workforce that mission safety is their highest obligation.

So once their scars are open and bleeding, what do they discuss?

They remind their people that they should, and must, feel empowered to voice doubt about processes, decisions, or possibilities that just don’t feel right. They talk about the obligation to report. They set out the anonymous outlets that staff can use to report concerns, and remind the workforce that any retaliation against whistleblowers will not be tolerated.

The administrator of NASA – the big man who runs the whole thing – gives out his email address and encourages everyone, even the most junior staffer, to contact him if they need to talk.

They share anecdotes about how empowering staff to voice doubt, in the 21 years since the last fatality, really did stop more accidents from happening.

They talk about groupthink, and how NASA’s success caused it to seep in, with fatal outcomes. They name groupthink as the space programme’s number one enemy, one which must never be tolerated.

They talk about groupthink’s twin – organisational silence – and remind the workforce that good people staying silent never resulted in anything other than heartache and humiliation.

They talk about how technical problems are caused by leadership problems, and remind all those in leadership to constantly check themselves, and their egos too.

They talk about living connections. They encourage younger staff members to seek out and speak with the employees who were there when Columbia was lost, to let them rip open their scars too.

They encourage the workforce to browse the Lessons Learned site, where they put all the organisation’s scars on full public display.

They encourage all staff to visit the repository where the debris from the three fatalities are curated not as historical artefacts, but as living warnings. They want staff to go and sit there, quietly and alone, looking at twisted shards of metal.

And they do this every single year, and always will. They refuse to let those scars heal. They never will.

That’s leadership.

We live in a time where leaders have, once again, gotten rather full of themselves. Programs, and missions, become about one single person. Groupthink and organisational silence are wielded as weapons of control. Warnings are ignored. Whistleblowing is taken as a personal attack. Technical problems multiply, passed through by leaders for whom more problems mean more power. Leadership stops leading and starts manipulating. Staff who don’t like the way things are done are told to just fucking leave.

So to me, it’s remarkable that in this world, despite all that, there are leaders who choose, every year, to stand up in front of the people they lead, and choose not to heal. Not out of self-pity, not out of attention-seeking, and not out of any emotionally manipulative moves for control. They do that because they’re fundamentally good people.

They deny themselves the opportunity to heal so that no one, sitting in front of them, will ever hurt like that again.

What a gift they’re giving their teams.

And what an opportunity they’re creating to build the most tough and competent workforce that ever existed.

I know which sort of leadership I’d rather work with.

And maybe that’s why for all my own scars, I choose not to let some of them heal too.

I’d rather put them to work.

Header photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett, from the Day of Remembrance page.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.


  1. John says

    Hi, Heather, and thanks for presenting this little bit of grieving. I’ve looked up at the sky in wonder my whole life also; it’s fascinating. However, I am struck by the fact that someone from another country just enlightened me to such a profound leadership humbling experience that NASA does every year. I never knew, and I live HERE, in the US! Thank you. John

  2. A personal friend of mine sent me this comment privately. I’m going to put it here one, so I don’t lose it, and two, because I have the *best* friends. <3

    This is so powerful, thank you for writing it and putting it out there. I also watched the video and while my own line of work obviously in no way compares to the scale and scope of NASA, I'm going to take some of the principles highlighted by those people back to our little company here. After all, even if we don't go to space, we do send people around the globe in aircrafts and we have a responsibility not only to make those trips as safe as possible but also to design our organisation in a way that ensures psychological safety for our people. Thanks again, Heather, this post truly has been food for thought.

Comments are closed.