Rocket Men: Lessons from Astronaut Twins Mark and Scott Kelly
What do managing an association and commanding a space shuttle have in common? More than you might think, say twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly—except you don’t have to leave for work at nine times the speed of a rifle bullet.
In 1969, around the time Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew took a giant leap for mankind, 5-year-old identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly launched a plan: They too would explore outer space, and they’d blast off together in a rocket ship they would build in their suburban New Jersey backyard.
The Kelly twins never got that rocket built. But the rest of the plan was remarkably prescient.
Nearly 50 years later, the only siblings who have both traveled in space have logged a combined 576 days off the face of Earth. Mark has commanded the space shuttle twice during his four trips to the International Space Station.
Scott commanded one shuttle flight and commanded the space station on two of his three visits there. Scott was aboard the space station when he broke the American record for time in orbit. That was during his now-famous “Year in Space,” which ended in March. At 340 days, it was the longest sojourn in the heavens ever made by an American.
Although the brothers have never been in space together, their astronaut careers remain linked through NASA’s Twin Study. It’s a unique chance to exploit their almost perfectly matched genetic makeups to examine the effects of long-term space travel on the human body and mind. During Scott’s year on the space station, Mark served as the ideal control subject on the ground, as physicians put them through round after round of physical and cognitive tests. The twins will be monitored for the rest of their lives to study the effects of weightlessness, radiation, confinement, and isolation on everything from chromosomes to sleep cycles to psyches.
Mark and Scott Kelly will reflect on the lessons they’ve learned about teamwork and leadership through their remarkable careers when they appear as keynote speakers to on August 13 to kick off ASAE’s 2016 Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City. Illustrated with awe-inspiring images from space, their joint talk will cover everything from the calculated risk-taking of space travel to the challenges Mark faced when his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in 2011.
Mark was born six minutes before Scott. He gained an extra five milliseconds on his brother due to the effects of relativity during Scott’s year in space: Time slows down for a person traveling 17,500 miles an hour.
Age difference aside, the twins have followed remarkably parallel tracks through life.
Both attended maritime colleges before joining the Navy and becoming aviators. Both flew combat missions off aircraft carriers in the first Gulf War. Both were promoted to captain before applying to NASA’s space shuttle program in 1995. Both overcame long odds: This year, NASA received 18,000 applicants for a class of eight to 14 astronauts.
Now, Scott has traveled much farther: His 522 cumulative days in space are a record for American astronauts and dwarf the 54 days that Mark accumulated over four missions. But the two remained close in spirit even when Scott was orbiting 200 miles overhead. They emailed frequently and spoke by satellite downlink every other day. Their close bonds and shared knowledge will enrich their ASAE presentation as they distill the lessons of life lived at Mach speed and high altitudes.
What are those lessons? In an interview he gave while Scott was recuperating from his expedition, Mark reflected on what years in combat and in the cosmos have taught him about leadership.
The boss doesn’t know everything. Even after commanding flights of the space shuttles Discovery and Endeavour, “I am not under the illusion that I have the right answer to everything. I was ultimately responsible, but that doesn’t mean I had all the answers.”
Mistakes will happen. “No matter how smart and experienced you and your people might be, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Space shuttle training involved long hours in a simulator designed to present the team with every conceivable malfunction, singly and in countless combinations. The reason for the endless practice is simple: “If these malfunctions were mishandled during an actual mission, they would kill everyone,” Mark says. “The difference between what we in the space program do and what other organizations do is that ours is a life-and-death thing.”
Your job as leader is to get the most out of your people. “When you’re in charge, the person ultimately responsible for success, you have to be the leader and coordinate the team. That means you have to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. You have to have others backing you up when it comes to your own weaknesses. Whether you’re a space shuttle commander or a CEO, you have to recognize yourself that you’re not always the best at the job at hand.”
Intimidation is not the answer. “I’ve seen General Patton types—squadron leaders and even space shuttle commanders—who have attempted to lead a team through fear and intimidation. Fortunately, that type seems to be going away. You don’t get the best out of your people when you do that.”
Leadership is something you do by example. “It has to do with whether on a day-to-day basis you treat your people in a way that allows them to be the best that they possibly can. Your job is really to maximize your team.”
Sycophants aren’t your friends. With every crew he’s led, Mark has made a point of talking early on about his dislike of “yes men” (and women)—staff who felt it was in their best interest to tell him only what he wanted to hear. “You’ve got to have people who’ll tell you when you’re messing up—and who’ll tell you every time!”
Groupthink leads to disaster— literally. The recent 30th anniversary of Space Shuttle Challenger’s explosion on takeoff is a reminder of how dangerous it can be when teams of people talk themselves into agreeing to bad decisions. “Collaborative decision making is incredibly important. You generally do get better decisions when you bring everybody together. Yet what happened with both Challenger and Columbia [which exploded upon reentry in 2003] should help us recognize that just because everybody agrees on a path doesn’t make it the right path to go down.
“You have to think: If it was just me making the decision, in the absence of everybody else, how do I really feel? Don’t let all these other folks influence what you really believe.”
To minimize groupthink, Mark says, “Constantly reevaluate.” Consider including someone on the team who can be counted on to play the role of devil’s advocate. And as a leader, let others play out their thinking before you voice your opinion.
In a difficult situation, focus on the task at hand. Living and working in space was a challenge—from the unforgiving work to the tensions of sharing tight quarters to the risk of sudden death at any time. For Mark, the key both in space and in combat was compartmentalizing: “You can’t be distracted by things outside your control. You’ve got to keep your head in the game.”
Risk Versus Reward
Here’s a final piece of advice you might not expect from someone who has blasted off from Earth at nine times the speed of the average rifle bullet: Avoid risks, especially ones that lack major rewards.
Mark’s reasoning goes like this: “We fly the space shuttle to advance science and exploration—to make an impact not as a space agency but as a nation. The experience does a lot for our economy and helps us as a nation to be more innovative.”
On his year-long stay in the International Space Station, “my brother endured incredible radiation, a zero-gravity environment—why would he do that? Not for the thrill of it. It was about serving his country in a role not too many other people could and having a really positive effect on society.”
The same principle is true for Earthbound association executives weighing their options in disruptive times: “There’s got to be a payoff. And if you’re risking the organization, the payoff needs to be major.”
The rewards that outweigh the risks of space travel—for the Kelly brothers and for society—were the theme of the thoughts Mark expressed just before liftoff on his last Endeavour voyage in 2011.
“As Americans, we endeavor to build a better life than the generation before, and we endeavor to be a united nation,” he said at the time. “It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.”