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What went wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope (and what managers can learn from it)

NASA's former director of astrophysics, Charlie Pellerin, has learned a thing about leadership and project failure
Charles 'Charlie' Pellerin.

Charles 'Charlie' Pellerin.

There's nothing unusual about having a bad day at the office. But some people have worse days than others, and in his time Charles (Charlie) Pellerin has had a few notable ones. Not many people find themselves having to explain why an organisation has invested a decade and half and in the vicinity of $3 billion on a project that has failed.

That's the position Pellerin found himself in as NASA's director of astrophysics in the wake of the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which had what appeared to be an unfixable flaw in its optical system.

It's difficult to overstate what a disaster this was and the humiliation faced by NASA; not just as an organisation but also the individuals who worked for the agency. A good friend of Pellerin who worked on the telescope fell ill in the wake of the launch and died. Two of Pellerin's senior staffers had to be removed from their offices by guards and taken to alcohol rehab facilities. "These are PhDs sitting at their desk getting drunk; this is how bad the stress was," says Pellerin.

Most people faced with a disaster on the scale of Hubble might want to either bury themselves under a blanket in bed for a decade or two, or try (no doubt unsuccessfully) to forget it ever happened. Instead Pellerin set out to try to fix Hubble — and succeeded, in the process winning NASA's Distinguished Service Medal, the highest honour conferred by the agency. And with a stubbornness that some people may consider verges on the perverse, set out to discover exactly what went wrong. The problem with Hubble, Pellerin concluded, wasn't merely a technical failure. It was a leadership failure and a product of the culture surrounding the project.

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His study of why projects fail also led him to draw links between Hubble and an earlier NASA disaster: The disintegration of Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, which killed seven astronauts.

"In 1986 I drove into my parking place at NASA headquarters and my staff members are waiting for me there and it's very unusual," Pellerin says. "They ran up to me and said, 'Charlie, Charlie, Challenger exploded." Pellerin's division had the biggest payload on Challenger, and in the lead-up to the launch there had been a lot of cross-training between his division and the astronauts. "I had this sinking feeling that maybe my payload had come loose, because it was a very low cost effort and it was big and heavy and maybe it had broken through the cargo bay doors and caused this accident."

Pellerin watched the Challenger failure review closely. "I had good friends who I thought were good solid engineering managers who worked on the boosters so I'm trying to figure out what happened," he says.

"I saw this guy, Richard Feynman, who was a review board member, take a piece of rubber O-ring and put it in his icy water on television, and showed that it stiffened up. So immediately I said, 'Oh, that's the technical problem, they didn't do the O-ring well.'"

"That was nuts," Pellerin says. "These guys understood the O-ring, but I put that story in my head because technical people look for technical answers. I never read the conclusion of [the review board] report that said it was a social shortfall."

Four years after Challenger Pellerin was getting ready to launch Hubble and grappling with the difficulties of readying a telescope that wasn't intended for in-atmosphere operation. The advantage of a telescope in space is that light from stars won't be moved around by atmospheric incoherencies. No-one had attempted to design a telescope that would offer the accuracy promised by Hubble.

"So the question is, what are you going to tell people if someone asks you if it's going to work? What would you say? 'Of course.' It's the only answer right?" Pellerin says. "You spend 15 years and $3 billion or whatever, so of course it's going to work — there's no other answer.

"The head of NASA congressional appropriations asked me, 'Is it going to work?' And I said, 'Of course!' So she went and identified herself very closely with the project. So then we find it doesn't…"

The circumstances under which Pellerin discovered Hubble's flawed mirror were "awkward". There was a 'first light' event for the opening of Hubble's aperture door — "we call it the toilet seat," Pellerin says. The aperture door was opened, and a little spot of light appears — the first light from Hubble. "Everybody whoops and cheers," Pellerin says. But he noticed the spot of light was fuzzy. He was reassured by a colleague that it was nothing serious; Hubble's secondary mirror was attached to a stepping motor that would allow minor alterations to cope with dimensional changes brought about by the outgassing of water vapour in space.

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Comments

ARaybould

1

NASA made essentially the same mistake 17 years after the Challenger crash, on Columbia's last flight: the same refusal to properly evaluate well-founded technical concerns, in order to press on with the mission plan.

George Margolin

2

Rohan's article on Pellerin of NASA -- was a MARVELOUS treatise on the hows and whys of complex (ASTRONOMICALLY) product developments. But even smaller ones MUST be looked at in the same way. MisTEAKS can and do happen. But Never by ME, of coarse.

I'll look up other writings of Mr. Rohan. He does good stuff.

FYI --- I'm an ooooooooooold professional inventor with 26 and growing, patents.

George Margolin
INVENTOR@POBOX.COM

Ari

3

Unsaid is Perkin Elmer was the premier telescopes-in-space company yet they were not permitted to use those national defense resources for this program (even as just auditors) that could have done this correctly (in their sleep "Oh, another mirror? What is this our NNth?"). Somewhat due to Congressional ethics rules enforced by IGs that required companies spend a dollar lest a nickel be wasted, or per some academic lawyer's view, inappropriately used.

This wasn't (just) the Challenger with its cascading judgment failures. It was a failure to use the "A team" save for the building they once lived in.

A tragedy of the first order - those things we do to ourselves wittingly. Hopefully a lot of the spittle blew back. Pity Senator DeConcini wasn't there to get his share given the damage he did to these programs (and their people who most often served in silence).

JBD

4

This fits the cockpit crew's lack of proper communications and team work that lead to AF447 finding its way to the bottom of the Atlantic. The crew was not a team. It was a rigid hierarchy.

{^_^}

John Hutchinson

5

Empowerment in the workplace brings about improved morale. Being able to correct without fear of reprisal is good for self esteem and job satisfaction.
The best places for service are the ones were any person behind the counter can make a decision on the boss' behalf without having to go "and get authority" (with some limits obviously) and know that they will be supported.
I would love to hear Pellerin's seminars, I'm sure they are eye opening.

gnome

6

A copy of this report should go to every federal politician - with instructions to read it.

Particularly the ones who like to pretend they are experts on national communications networks and a few other things.
: )

Jim

7

I STRONGLY suggest everyone read Phil Tompkins’ book on NASA from 1958 to 2003 — a former professor of mine who literally created the field of Organizational Communication, and for Von Braun, CREATED the hierarchy at NASA and the vendor relationships (and leader/power structure) that achieved the objectives of the 1960s, but whose lessons were completely lost by Challenger, the above article and of course, Columbia.

I was so fortunate to be a student of his 30 years ago.

Tompkins —> http://tinyurl.com/796nghc

* 1967: when Tompkins first served as a Summer Faculty Consultant in Organizational Communication to legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun during the Apollo Program.

* 1968: when he served in the same capacity to help reorganize NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

* 1986: when he investigated the communication failures that caused the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

* 1987: when he researched NASA’s highly successful Aviation Safety Reporting System.

* 2003: when he interpreted the communication failures leading up to the catastrophic failure of the space shuttle Columbia.

Leader Syndrome

8

As a conclusion for managers:
1) "Go slow to go fast". Cost of change drastically increases overtime. It is thus key to involve in a cross-functional approach project stakeholders at the very early stage of the project in order to go through an open and honest risk exercise.
2) create a culture of feedback and openness that will support a constructive sharing, starting from the top hierachy

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