Monday, August 7, 2017

Mission Failure

There are many topics on my backlog to blog about: fun space things I’ve seen, new space things I’ve accomplished, my plans for the future. But what’s on my mind today is a matter of heart: mistakes, scapegoating, and team discord.

Bullying, which causes psychological harm to children everywhere, also affects adults in the workplace. I was victim to a workplace bully in graduate school who harmed my perception of myself, slowed my research progress, and exasperated my sense of impostor syndrome in the laboratory that took me years to overcome.

Preparing for my first ZeroG Corporation parabolic microgravity flight in grad school was a joyful, if exhausting experience. Finally, I would be able to float in free-fall – just as astronauts do – even if for only 30 seconds at a time. And I would be accomplishing real science as I soared, science I needed for my PhD. I wanted to have a blast, but I also wanted the experiment to be a success.

Which makes the outcome of that experience all the more frustrating.

Each team member was trained to handle a specific role during the flight. We had four team members and four roles. All four tasks needed to be accomplished during each microgravity-creating parabola in order to make the experiment a success. We had four experiment boxes to run the experiment four times, but only one laptop and camera setup.

My task was to press a button at the right time to release an impactor (a marble) to shoot at a very slow speed into a container of sand (fake Moon or Mars dirt/regolith simulant). But I couldn’t do my job alone; I relied on another team member with a better viewing angle to tell me when to fire the trigger. Our jobs depended on each other. We all needed to work together.

The first two tries were a flop. The trigger didn’t fire. Something must have been loose in the wiring. The third try worked! But my team member got too excited and told me to press the trigger too early. We weren’t having the best luck with scientific research.

At this point, we were losing team members. Two of the team had tapped out by then, victim of the Vomit Comet. We prepared for that eventuality, although admittedly not well. Each member of the team had spent a few minutes in the lab learning all the other team member’s tasks in case we needed to take over for a sick teammate. Had we thought a bit more ahead of time, we would have realized a few minutes of training would not cut it in a high-pressure quick-paced floating environment where it was hard enough to control limbs, let alone the experiment. But at the time, I had no choice. I took over the camera operation as well as my triggering duties and hoped for the best.

The best is not what happened. I don’t know how, but instead of recording 30 seconds of data on our forth and final experiment attempt, the video recorded a fraction of a second that looped for 30 seconds. I had never seen that happen before and had no idea the software even had that feature. I wasn’t sure if it was something I had done wrong, something the previous camera operator had done wrong, or just a very odd glitch in the camera software. But I was the one who pressed the camera buttons, so I accepted blame.

Up until this point, my workplace bully (the lab manager) had no legitimate complaints against me. She was envious of my educational success beyond her own, frustrated she had no authority over me, and infuriated that she couldn’t get under my skin, at least not yet. But the camera failure gave her the perfect opportunity and she jumped on it. Despite the fact that three of the four experiments failed for other reasons and the forth failure may or may not have my fault, I became the scapegoat for the whole mission failure.

With my own admission of possible guilt and no useful data to show for the ZeroG flight, she successfully turned half the lab against me, impressionable undergraduates who depended on her opinion for a job and who she also bullied to a lesser degree. The lab was a dysfunctional mess and a toxic work environment. I accepted increased isolation in the lab for my own mental health, trying my best to avoid contact with her.

My biggest failing was to internalize her lies about me. I began to see my labwork and my aptitude as a scientist in a more negative light, wondering if I really was a failure. This doubt hindered my success for years.

My bully petitioned hard to prevent me from flying during our next parabolic flight opportunity, this time with NASA in Houston. But with multiple flights over multiple days, we needed a larger team of flyers. I did fly for one of those parabolic flights. This time, it was me who got sick halfway through the flight and had to pass off my job tasks to another team member. And this time around, despite the multiple flights, our experiment failed for other reasons. I could not be blamed.

Despite the research failures, the team disharmony, and the eventual vomiting, I did have a blast during those parabolic flights. They remain one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.

Floating around in microgravity - Nov. 2011

When I read about today’s Rocket Lab test flight failure because someone on the ground forgot to tick a box in ground control software, I feel for that person. The weight of failure on his/her shoulders must be very heavy right now. It is my deepest hope that whoever was responsible for the software mistake which doomed the Rocket Lab launch feels supported by his/her team, not isolated or ostracized.

Poor coworkers might scapegoat an employee who makes a mistake. But in reality, mistakes like that don’t happen in isolation. A unified, well-working team would work together during preparation to ensure easy mistakes don’t happen, but when they do, they would band together to accept fault as a group and seek solutions for the future. Mission success depends on the efforts of all, working together for a common purpose, holding each other up, working past failures, and celebrating successes. Mission success depends on everyone.

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