Lessons from outer space

As an astronaut at NASA, Garrett Reisman was part of a government agency taking big risks. Now a professor and senior advisor at Space X, he’s helping the private sector manage those risks.

Q: Before we get started, describe what your first spacewalk was like.

Garett Reisman: That’s an interesting story. I was an astronaut for 13 years at NASA and flew two missions up to the International Space Station. My first mission was in 2008, and my second was in 2010. The first one was a long-duration mission. I was up there for 95 days.

When I did my first spacewalk, it was crazy. You launch into space for the first time as a rookie, which is a mind-blowing experience. A day later, you get to the space station, dock and look around. After about an hour or two, they say, ‘OK, welcome to the space station. Time to get in the airlock and prepare for your spacewalk.’ Stuff is happening so fast. Even though you prepared for years, each one of these incredible life experiences is hitting you left and right, but nothing compares to the spacewalk.

Q: What does the spacewalk actually feel like?

GR: I can remember a couple of moments of feeling a sensation of slowing down time and being completely overwhelmed to the point where the rest of your life experiences melt away. I remember doing a spacewalk on my second mission, and I was holding on to a rail with the whole space station behind me. Looking forward, I could see nothing but earth and space. I watched the earth’s horizon as we were flying towards it. That sunrise is something I will never forget. It gives you a sense of total immersion in the moment.

On the other hand, often it’s the opposite. Time doesn’t slow down and become silent. Often, it’s fast and furious, loud and dynamic. Instead of time stopping for much more than a moment, it can fly by and evade your grasp. There is a common occurrence for people that have done space shuttle missions that last less than two weeks. So many crazy things happen, and the abnormality of your environment never ceases. The next thing that happens is you’re lying on your back on the runway after the space shuttle lands, and you’re asking yourself, ‘What the hell just happened to me?’

Q: Why did you make the switch from working for NASA in the public sector to working for SpaceX in the private sector?

GR: On my second mission, we were getting ready to roll the vehicle to the launch pad in Florida, but it had rained and the ground was too wet for the crawler to take the shuttle out. We had a one-day delay, and we heard that SpaceX was working on a new launch pad nearby. Our crew made arrangements to check it out, and we were really impressed by what we saw, how fast things were coming together, the reduction in red tape, the innovative way they were repurposing old equipment. They were doing things a lot faster and for a lot less money than we were used to seeing things get done for. It became our mantra, as we went through training and ran into some kind of government bureaucracy, we would ask, ‘Well, what would SpaceX do?’

“The reason decisions can take so long in large-scale government operations is that it’s very expensive to make a wrong decision”

After we flew the mission, a friend of mine at SpaceX invited me to California, and I was very impressed by everything I saw. I had a meeting with Elon Musk and told him, ‘I really like what you’re doing and I want to be part of it. Can I help?’ And he said, ‘Sure’.

Q: Why do you think a private company like SpaceX can move more efficiently?

GR: A big part of it is a vastly increased decision speed. Decisions that would normally take years of study and analysis in the public sector are done much more quickly in the private sector.

One of the reasons SpaceX can do this is because of their vertical integration. As SpaceX started trying to buy parts, components, subsystems, what they found was that prices and schedules were horrible. In the aerospace industry, which was weaned on cost-plus government contracting, the whole supply chain is very expensive and inflexible. If you change something, it can be very painful. If you make one small change, it can have a ripple effect and be extremely slow and costly.

At SpaceX, if we decide to use nine engines instead of eight, we just ask a team to build the engine that way and to build the support structure that way. It’s all in-house and changes can be done without re-negotiating contracts, etc. As a result, you can make a very quick decision.

Q: Why does NASA operate much more slowly?

GR: There’s good reason for it. Nobody does things slowly just for the sake of doing things slowly. People are motivated by good intentions and reasons.

The bad part about having a fast decision speed is you might make the wrong decision. The reason decisions can take so long in large-scale government operations is that it’s very expensive to make a wrong decision. So, they take their time to make sure it’s right the first time, which is often hard to do.

In the private sector, if the fastest way to figure out if you made a bad decision is by charging ahead until you hit a brick wall, you have to have the agility to change direction quickly and painlessly. That’s a key [move] that a government can’t do.

Q: What motivations do private companies have to weigh risks on the same level as the public sector?

GR: It’s very important to remember that the private sector has an equally strong motivation to manage risk, and a very strong incentive driven by the profit motive. If you’re in the business of doing space flights, and your business has a very bad accident, especially a loss of life, it could be an existential threat to the company. If we have a major accident, how would SpaceX be able to survive that?

“Over time, if something happens you know is wrong but there is an absence of negative consequence, you’re getting away with something”

The perception on the government side is that change is risky. If you change something, it could have unintended consequences. If it’s working, don’t fix it. There’s an interesting concept called the ‘normalisation of deviance’. Over time, if something happens you know is wrong but there is an absence of negative consequence, you’re getting away with something. It’s like speeding while driving down the highway and getting away with it for a long period of time. It doesn’t mean you won’t get pulled over one day.

SpaceX has more of a Silicon Valley ethos, which is, if something stays the same, you’re missing out on an opportunity to make it better. You can make the argument that NASA tragedies like Challenger and Columbia happened because we didn’t change things or were reluctant to make changes. On the other hand, at SpaceX, we’ve had failures come from unintended consequences. You can screw up in both ways, right?

Garrett Reisman is a keynote speaker at our upcoming Global Summit, held in Berlin 18-21 March. For more information on on our event, please click here.