January 28, 2021

Today marks 35 years since the Challenger Accident.

Hard to believe, as it continues to feel like yesterday and not approaching the era of ancient history.  Just doing the math, though, shows that fateful morning in 1986 as being closer to end of the Korean war than to today’s (ancient Chinese curse) “interesting times”. 

Yet, here we are.

I won’t go through the details again of where I was on that day – I’ve done that. This week also marks a somber timeframe for NASA, marked with an annual Day of Remembrance to remember the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. I’ve talked about that, too.

And, being honest, it’s still not easy to go through the memories of that day, but it’s critically important to not ignore them.  I suppose that’s exactly what such a seminal moment in anyone’s personal history should be, right?

When I started at NASA, just three weeks prior to the Challenger Accident, and even for years afterwards, you could still find desks, chairs, and even chalkboards on the office walls that were several decades old.  I’m not exaggerating, as one of my desks still had a 1950s-era NACA property tag from Langley!  In 1986, the Mission Control consoles were still exactly the same units that had been used for controlling Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s.  I didn’t think of these as “outdated” or “too old”, but rather as almost revered artifacts that I was going to be privileged to share with those that had come before me. 

But, I do remember seeing a particular chalkboard in one office that had two faded words in the upper corner.  It wasn’t that they were erased – to the contrary, they had a box drawn around them with “DO NOT ERASE” prominently below them.

Those two words?

After the pad fire that killed the Apollo 1 astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee on my birthday in 1967, Gene Kranz pulled together the Mission Control team to talk about what happened and how NASA would forever dedicate themselves.   This speech is short – but the lessons it taught those who came before me, my generation, and those who came after us are priceless.  

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up.  It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it.  We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.  Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we.  The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily.  Nothing we did had any shelf life.  Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’  I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find.  We are the cause!  We were not ready!  We did not do our job.  We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle.  We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

 

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent’. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

35 years ago was a shock to me personally, but the impacts of that morning still ring true.  Having learned of Kranz’s speech and what those words on a chalkboard actually meant to us, I’ve applied those lessons throughout the rest of my personal and professional life. 

The Flight Controller’s Creed codifies a lot of Kranz’s speech and is still mounted on a plaque in the Mission Control Center (MCC).  

 

To this day, I still remember seeing those two faded, but never erased, “Words on a Chalkboard”.

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2 Comments

  1. Dave

    This is excellent thank you. I didn’t know that story and it’s cool that you saw a chalkboard that still had those words written there.

    Reply
  2. SpaceFan

    I read that in Gene’s book but didn’t realize you could still see those chalkboards!

    Reply

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