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I had the fortune of hearing Mark Kelly, Captain of the last Endeavor space flight and husband to Congress-woman Gabriel Gifford, speak today at a national conference. Watching his opening video was inspirational to say the least.
The biggest item I took away from Captain Kelly’s speech was how life can change in an instance, and how it is the smallest of adjustments to our plans that can make all the difference.
Captain Kelly shared story after story of the risks his career holds. From having missiles fired at his Navy bomber to piloting a spacecraft with 7.5 million pounds of thrust behind it, risk has been part of his life. He talked at length how he had decided early on that he and his NASA team would avoid making small mistakes. It was his opinion that it is the small mistakes and the “unknown unknowns” that could be the most costly.
An example he gave was based around re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. As many of you know, spaceship Columbia disintegrated during it’s re-entry attempt in 2003. According to Captain Kelly it was a small mistake that caused this. At any given time a shuttle will be traveling at around 17,500 mph. When re-entering the atmosphere they slow the shuttle down to 17,300 mph. This is a 11.4% reduction in speed. Any variation off this and your shuttle doesn’t make it.
Many professionals focus on the big items that can cost their companies. Usually we know what they are. Things like losing our largest client or failing to fulfill a contract and thus being sued can have a tremendous impact on our success. Follow Captain Kelly’s advice, and become an expert at anticipating the “unknown unknowns”.