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Mike Mullane

Nasa Space Shuttle Astronaut - Expert on Safety, Leadership, & Teamwork

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Mike Mullane: Nasa Space Shuttle Astronaut - Expert on Safety, Leadership, & Teamwork

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Mike Mullane was born September 10, 1945 in Wichita Falls, Texas but spent much of his youth in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he currently resides. Upon his graduation from West Point in 1967, he was commissioned in the United States Air Force. As a Weapon Systems Operator aboard RF-4C Phantom aircraft, Mike Mullane completed 134 combat missions in Vietnam. He holds a Master's of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and is also a graduate of the Air Force Flight Test Engineer School at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Mike Mullane was selected as a Mission Specialist in 1978 in the first group of Space Shuttle Astronauts. He completed three space missions and logged 356 hours in space aboard the Shuttles Discovery (STS-41D) and Atlantis (STS-27 & 36) before retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1990. Mullane has been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and is the recipient of many awards, including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit and the NASA Space Flight Medal.

Since his retirement from NASA, Colonel Mullane has written an award-winning children's book, Liftoff! An Astronaut's Dream, and a popular space-fact book, Do Your Ears Pop In Space? Colonel Mullane’s memoir, Riding Rockets, The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut (Scribner, hardcover) is also available in book stores and (all of Mullane's books are available for credit card purchase on this website's store.). Mullane has also served as a host for Inside Space, a nationally syndicated cable television program of the USA Network. His wonderfully entertaining presentations of Stories From Space have been eagerly solicited by organizations of all kinds - from Fortune 500 companies to professional associations; from societies to schools and universities.

As a professional speaker, Colonel Mullane has thrilled tens of thousands of adults and a half-million children with his inspirational, motivational and humorous descriptions of the astronaut experience.
Countdown To Teamwork
Countdown To Teamwork is a team-building/leadership program in which Colonel Mullane motivates the audience on their practice of these fundamentals of teamwork: guarding against a “normalization of deviance”, responsibility, trust, courageous self-leadership, and courageous team leadership. This program is applicable to all teams everywhere. It has thrilled and inspired personnel in sales, manufacturing, production, safety…in ALL areas of company operations. It has been cheered by managers and blue-collar workers, by union and non-union teams. It has been enjoyed by men and women from every corner of corporate America…from perfume sales teams to nuclear power plant safety teams; from insurance company teams to medical equipment manufacturers; from beverage producers to record label teams.

Countdown To Teamwork is more than just a motivational and learning tool on the topics of teamwork and leadership. It is also an extraordinarily entertaining program. (Mike’s programs are NEVER technical.) Colonel Mullane mixes his serious messages with hilarious never-before-heard astronaut stories and remarkable NASA video. The audience members will alternately find themselves roaring with laughter and sitting on the edge of their seats in suspense.

Countdown has been extremely successful at exceeding the expectations of meeting planners. You will get a sense of that success by visiting the testimonials page. Another indication of the popularity of Countdown To Teamwork is this fact…Astronaut Mullane has been a keynote speaker at events where other speakers included former President George Bush Sr., General Colin Powell and Tom Peters.

Countdown To Teamwork can be edited to fit the agenda of any event. Mullane’s presentation is augmented with a PowerPoint program that includes spectacular video and slides.

Countdown To Teamwork Abstract
Using video projected as part of his PowerPoint program, Colonel Mullane opens with a dramatic narration of a shuttle countdown and launch, leading the audience to this question, "If it was YOU on that rocket, what type of a team would you want holding your life in their hands?" Obviously you would want a team that's the BEST!

Astronaut Mullane then establishes that teams achieve greatness when they practice certain fundamentals and he uses his experiences as an astronaut and Air Force flyer to develop these fundamentals:

Guarding against a "Normalization of Deviance"
Normalization of deviance is a long term phenomenon in which individuals or teams repeatedly accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the “norm”. Usually, the acceptance of the lower standard occurs because the individual/team is under pressure (budget, schedule, etc.) and perceives it will be too difficult to adhere to the expected standard. Their intention may be to revert back to the higher standard when this period of pressure passes. However, by “getting away” with the deviation, it is likely they will do the same thing when the same stressful circumstances arise again. Over time, the individual/team fails to see their actions as deviant.

Mullane uses the Challenger tragedy to make this point. Under tremendous schedule and budget pressures and over multiple launches, the NASA team accepted a lower standard of performance on the solid rocket booster O-rings until that lower standard became the "norm". By the dawn of Challenger, the NASA team had become so comfortable with seeing occasional O-ring damage and getting away with it, the original standard, in which ANY O-ring damage was defined as intolerable deviance, was marginalized. Disaster resulted.

The Columbia tragedy is another example of normalization of deviance and Mullane discusses the salient issue of that tragedy…that the NASA team grew so comfortable accepting occasional “hits” on the winged-orbiter by foam shedding from the gas tank, they lost sight of the criticality of the deviance.

Teams maintain their high standards of performance by "planning the work and working the plan"; connecting the dots (to insure multiple problems aren't just symptoms of a single normalization of deviance problem); and by considering the instincts of team members in the decision making process. With Challenger, some engineers had a gut feeling that an O-ring disaster loomed, but management refused to react to instincts. Leaders should investigate instinctual fears to determine if, in fact, they are rooted in reality.

The power of a team resides in the uniqueness of the team members, in their diversity of life experiences and insights. Everyone has a sacred responsibility to get their unique perspectives on the table for the leadership to consider. Leaders have a sacred responsibility to empower the voices of their people so they can gain access to those unique perspectives. "One person with courage forms a majority", is a quote by former President Andrew Jackson that Mullane will use in this discussion. He also uses an example of how a medical doctor at NASA (not an engineer or astronaut) had the best idea for a shuttle bailout system. This is an example of how great ideas can exist in the minds of people who are not considered the experts on a particular issue and this is why team leaders need to work on empowering every voice on their teams.


Trust is achieved through “need” fulfillment. We all look to our leaders to fulfill these fundamental needs: to be treated with respect as an individual; to get honest recognition for our work; to have a voice in matters that concern us. When leaders fulfill these needs, the bonds of trust strengthen and through this trust the true potential of the team is realized. Mullane draws from his experiences as a combat flyer in Vietnam to illustrate how need fulfillment by combat team leaders builds trust and through this trust the warrior potential of the combat team is realized. The same warrior potential exists in corporate teams and leaders can unleash this potential by identifying and fulfilling the needs of their people.

Courageous Self-Leadership

Mullane uses his life story to develop these points on self-leadership: self-leaders set very lofty goals, stay focused on what's important, and constantly do their best at every task. Mullane develops this philosophy of self-leadership: "Success isn't a destination. It's a continuous life journey of working toward successively higher goals."

Courageous Team Leadership
Again, Mullane uses aspects of his life story to develop this point...that truly courageous team leaders maximize the potential of their people through this leadership philosophy: "I want YOU, to be more successful than ME."

Most audiences are shocked to learn how ordinary Mullane was. People assume because he is an astronaut now, that in his youth, he was a super-child, destined for great success. That is not the case. Mullane uses slides and video to prove he wasn't a child genius. He wasn't a sports star. He wasn't popular. He didn't date the homecoming queen. Yet he realized a lifetime dream. His success occurred, as is does for all of us, because of leaders (parents, teachers, scout masters, bosses, etc.) who didn't see him as he was, but looked past that to his potential and worked to develop that potential through this courageous leadership philosophy, “I want YOU, to be more successful than ME”.

Countdown To Teamwork is remarkably inspirational. The audience will come away from the program with a renewed sense of their potential and the potential of their teams.

The Lighter Side of Spaceflight Overview
In his program, The Lighter Side of Spaceflight, Astronaut Mike Mullane will take the audience on a uniquely revealing, captivating and hilarious space journey. Using spectacular video and slides he will answer everybody’s space questions: What does a shuttle launch feel like?...How does an astronaut deal with the incredible fear of launch?...How do you sleep, bathe, eat, drink, etc.?....What do you see from space?...And, of course, he will answer the top two questions that astronauts are ever asked:

Number 1: How does the space toilet work? (When the audience hears how astronauts train to use the toilet they will be convulsed with laughter.)...and...

Number 2: Have astronauts seen any UFOs or aliens?

The answers to these questions and many, many more are lavishly wrapped with inside, hilarious stories and supported with amazing video. The audience will not only be thoroughly entertained by The Lighter Side of Spaceflight, but will also feel privileged to have been given an insight into the astronaut experience that few people ever get to experience.

Countdown To Safety
In his program, “Countdown To Safety”, Astronaut Mullane delivers a powerful message on the individual’s role in keeping themselves and their team’s safe in hazardous environments.  Mullane introduces this subject with a recount of his own near-death experience in a fighter jet, when he failed to speak up about an unsafe situation.  He assumed another crewmember, with more flying time, “knew best” about the safety of their operations.   In other words, at a critical moment in a hazardous operation, Mullane surrendered his responsibility for safety to someone else.  He became a “safety passenger”.  The result was his (and the pilot’s) narrow escape from death during their ejection from the crashing jet.  The destruction of a multi-million dollar plane might have been avoided if Mullane had maintained his “safety presence” and voiced his assessment on the dangers of the pilot’s decision.  Instead, he assumed he didn’t “count”, that the pilot knew best.

Mullane continues this thread: that each individual brings to their team a unique perspective on safety.  Only when every person’s perspective is available for analysis can a team be truly safe.  When it comes to safety, everybody counts.  Safety is not management’s responsibility or a supervisor’s responsibility or the safety officer’s responsibility.  It is EVERYBODY’S responsibility.  Never be a “safety passenger”.

Another significant message within Mullane’s “Countdown To Safety” program is his discussion on “Normalization of Deviance”.  Astronaut Mullane uses the space shuttle Challenger disaster to define this term, its safety consequences, and how individuals and teams can defend themselves from the phenomenon.  

Challenger was the result of a failure of a booster rocket O-ring seal.  Viewers will be shocked to know this failure was predicted:  “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to solve the problem, with the O-ring having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.” (From a NASA-contractor memo dated six months prior to Challenger). 

When a burn-damaged O-ring (a criticality 1 deviance) was first observed following the second shuttle mission, NASA, under enormous schedule pressure, convinced themselves the problem could be fixed with minor modifications to booster assembly procedures and that a grounding the fleet (required for a criticality 1 deviance) was not necessary.   When the next several missions flew without O-ring anomalies, the correctness of the decision to continue operations was reinforced.  However, over the following several years, more cases of O-ring sealing problems were observed in the returned boosters but with each successful flight the false feedback that it was safe to continue flight operations was strengthened.  In other words, the absence of something bad happening was being falsely interpreted as an indication that the team’s actions were safe when, in fact, it was mere random chance that a disaster hadn’t occurred.  The team had gotten away with accepting a criticality 1 deviance so many times, the deviance had been normalized into the team’s decision-making process.  Challenger was a “predictable surprise”.  

After dramatically defining “Normalization of Deviance”, Astronaut Mullane continues with an explanation of how individuals and teams can defeat this dangerous phenomenon through these practices:  recognizing one’s vulnerability to it; making it a religion to “plan the work and work the plan”; considering one’s instincts; and, archiving and periodically reviewing near-misses and disasters so the corporate memory never fades.  (Mullane explains that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia…17 years after Challenger…was a repeat of “Normalization of Deviance”.  NASA’s corporate memory had faded over those 17 years.)  

The messages delivered in “Countdown To Safety” are reinforced with rarely seen NASA video and slides.  The program is hard-hitting, fast paced and, in places, very humorous.  It is certain to open the eyes of every viewer to their individual criticality to team safety.
“I just wanted to send you a short note to let you know what an impact you made at Intel last week. I saw your presentation on Tuesday and it was fantastic!”

“I wanted to write to thank you for your incredible presentation. You were hands down the hit of the conference. People are still stopping me in the hallways and calling me to -- well, gush, actually. They can't say enough about how much they enjoyed listening to you. Your remarks on leadership and teamwork really hit home with a lot of people here, not to mention how entertained everyone was with your anecdotes and your style.  Anyway, Mike, thanks again for the amazing energy you brought with you and for your wonderful ability to connect with an audience. You really started off the conference with class.”
Suncor Energy

“I just wanted to personally convey, on behalf of Suncor, how pleased we were with the "triple crown" speaking engagement you did for us. All the individuals who heard you speak found your presentations to be both engaging and relevant.  In fact, your talks have created such a "buzz" around the company that individuals who didn't get a chance to hear you speak have been emailing me and asking if I can provide them with your presentation or speaking notes.  Is there anything I can provide to these individuals?  I would appreciate any assistance you can provide in this regard. Through my participation in the Oil Sands' 3 day Journey to Zero Future State Visioning workshop that straddled our President's Awards, I know that your messages hit a mark with the workshop participants.  On Tuesday and Wednesday following your Monday night address, many of the participants incorporated your messages (courageous self leadership was a favorite) when they reported back to the plenary session on the work of their respective breakout teams.” 
Suncor Calgary

“Thanks for coming!  In going through the feedback forms, your presentation was clearly the highlight of the day!  You also did an excellent job of threading John Christoffersen's opening remarks into your content and everything presented was not only informative and entertaining but highly applicable.

“You will be pleased to hear that your messages are reverberating around the hallways here. I don't recall any other speaker who has created so much positive dialogue. Well done!”

First of all, your idea of bringing Mike Mullane was an absolute home run. Since I have spoken to you, I have had a chance to review the feedback summaries from all the sessions.  The volume of positive comments specific to Mr. Mullane was  near 70% of all responses.  Those are incredible results, and telling  that his presentations touched our site and our people in that manner.  The areas he touched on are those that will remove barriers toward making our site injury free, which is especially critical during summer months.”
Exxon Mobil

“I attended the NCR Partners Conference last week and thought your closing address was EXCELLENT. You certainly challenged our thinking and renewed our dedication to "teamwork" to accomplish any goal.”

“Thank you for helping to make this the successful event it was! I thought you might be interested in the following feedback from the participants: “Speaker was dynamic, enthusiastic, humorous, and inspiring on leadership topic.”
Alberta Government

“I have never attended a dynamic speaker such as yourself and I was in complete amazement with your methods and enthusiasm towards capturing the audience with your speech.”
Construction Owners’ Association of Alberta