Passion and Discipline


“Passion starts the journey and discipline guides around the curves.”
–Kate Nasser

You remember the story of the trapped Chilean miners from last year?

Earlier this summer i saw a video clip of an interview conducted by Michael Useem, Director for the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania (and author of a number of books such as Leading Up, which I happen to have on my bookshelf), with Laurence Golborne, a Chilean civil engineer, entrepreneur, and Chile’s Mining Minister.  What I found fascinating about the interview is the simplicity with which Golborne spoke about leading a team of specialists to conduct the rescue.  In particular, I noted several key attributes he mentioned concerning leadership:

  • Sell the team on a dream: the idea that we can describe the outcome we are seeking – successful rescue of the miners – as what we are striving for.
  • Never give up: although the challenges for conducting a rescue may appear insurmountable, positive optimism will win the day.
  • Be present and seen as committed: being on site as opposed to behind a desk in Santiago brought forth a level of infectious commitment from all those involved in the rescue.
  • Be surrounded by competent, confident people: having the previous three naturally draws competent, confident people like a magnet; a leader is only as good as the weakest link on the team.

When I reflected on these key attributes, I see a pattern of passion and discipline.  Moreover, these two words have cropped up numerous times in recent weeks.  Is there something going on here?

Kate Nasser thinks so.  In a recent blog post she wrote that it takes two traits to be successful – passion and discipline – as a duo.  Success does not come with one or the other.  It must be both.

I’ve reflected on passion and discipline as I look ahead to our future in human spaceflight (you knew this was coming, right?).  On Monday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden remarked during a visit here in Houston that the new Space Launch System will succeed because we will have a leaner, more disciplined NASA that will overcome the technical and budgetary challenges before us.  Much as in the Chilean mining rescue, some of these challenges are rather daunting.  With a growing federal deficit and increased pressure from some in Congress to cut spending, the budgetary challenges will be tremendous.  As Charlie pointed out, “we have to be affordable and we have to change the way we do business.”  All of this speaks towards discipline – technical and budgetary.

Where is the passion?

Look, if there is one characteristic in common with people when talking about space, it’s passion.  Just last week I gave a tour of the NASA facilities in Houston to a friend, and during the day I could see the passion in her eyes as the tour served as a catalyst for her own dreams of pursuing advanced degrees in astrophysics.  What is it the NASA Tweetup participants have in common, for choosing to come together?  Passion.

If the passion for the next step in human spaceflight is rooted in merely building giant rockets, then we are what some of our critics accuse us of being: yet another Government agency whose existence serves the special interests in certain Congressional districts. I don’t know about you, but my passion is not in building giant rockets, with all due respects to some of my esteemed NASA colleagues.

Instead, my passion is in exploring, in discovering and learning new things about the universe around us.  To explore, we have to have a reason why.  I’ve articulated five possible reasons why before: nationalism, commerce, science, saving the Earth, and settlement.  Any or all of these can serve as the motivating reason why.

To bring it home, we need a goal tied to the reason.  Some call this a “destination”, which is being frowned upon at the highest levels.  I don’t call it a destination, I call it a goal that unites passion and discipline in the kinds of ways Kate Nasser wrote about, and which Laurence Golborne spoke about.  For me, that goal is to return to the Moon, to stay.

Imagine the passion that would be ignited by such a goal (and no, Mr. President, it’s not a ‘been there done that” sort of thing).

Imagine the level of discipline needed to bring about such an outcome with the fiscal pressures upon us and the advancement in technology needed.

Wouldn’t uniting passion and discipline be the right thing to do for human spaceflight?

Copyright © 2011, Joe Williams
Photo credit: iStockphoto/sdecoret

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10 thoughts on “Passion and Discipline

  1. Dear Joe,
    I am so honored by your reference to my blog post. To me the duo of passion and discipline is inextricably connected for success — in everything. And when we think of the giant strides in space that NASA and this country has achieved, it’s clear to me that it took both.

    Great post and I will share it with others as inspiration to get through the highs and lows!

    Kate

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kate. Your blog post got me thinking about what we ought to be doing in human spaceflight. Thanks for getting me going with your wonderful words on passion and discipline.

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  3. Hello Joe.
    I cannot say exactly how I became such a space cadet but I am definitely spending a serious amount of time thinking about space travel.

    I started posting blog comments a couple years ago on a site and my views were not popular. Not popular on another website either. So I am looking for a new home.

    I am a believer in a DOD funded human space flight program to the tune of five or six times the present NASA budget. I base this belief on the vast treasure the DOD expends on cold war toys when a real threat from outer space exists in the form of impacts.

    The basic methodology for a space defense system is to start by ending the whole private space fantasy or at least answer a serious need for revision. Nothing wrong with a fantasy that leads to a real change in the universe. But the general discussion of space exploration has come to the point where the hard facts are being ignored or denied.

    Radiation is the fantastical denial that needs to be corrected before any progress can be made in space exploration. Space is not an ocean and rockets are not the airlines. It is why our first space station had as it’s main instrument a telescope to look at the sun- to try to predict lethal solar storms. There are three solutions to space radiation hazards. Don’t go, go fast, or go heavy. We have been practicing the first solution for a half century. The second solution will not fly for the same reason heavier than air flight was considered impossible just over a century ago- no power plant capable of generating the required energy. The third solution is a massive radiation shield but a power plant capable of moving the minimum several hundred tons of shielding around the solar system is again not immediately available.

    The massive shield solution is guaranteed to work while exposing astronauts to cosmic radiation is guaranteed to fail. The enabler is nuclear energy. Chemical propulsion is close to useless for Beyond Earth Orbit Human Space Flight (BEO-HSF).

    The massive shield/nuclear propulsion requirement is step one and is all but ignored or shouted down by Joe the space plumber and the cheaper smaller is better crowd.

    Step two after deciding that denial is not going to solve any problems is funding. There is only one mission that has the moral high ground above all calls on public funds- impact defense. There is only one mission that calls on nuclear weapon expertise and international alliances. There is only one mission that can call upon the vast governmental resources necessary to colonize the solar system.

    Step one is accepting the radiation problem and the solution, step two is finding the justification for expending massive public treasure. Step three is deciding exactly how to make it all happen. Hobby rockets and going cheap is doomed to failure. There is no cheap, space travel is inherently expensive.

    “Travel” is not going around in endless circles protected by the Van Allen belts. To travel you have to go somewhere.

    Step three is exactly about how to build spaceships. Astronomically expensive, true nuclear powered and nuclear propelled space ships would be capable of multi-year missions to the outer solar system armed with nuclear devices to deflect impact threats.

    To build a spaceship you need a moon base. To build the moon base to build and launch the spaceship you need a Heavy Lift Vehicle. The Space Launch System. What is needed now is DOD money to launch the SLS ten times a year with wet workshops headed for the moon.

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion.

    • Thank you for stopping by LeadingSpace. I certainly welcome contrarian views that are well articulated and have a clear basis in values, supported by data. I also appreciate civil discourse, which unfortunately seems to be in short supply on some space policy websites, especially those that touch upon political matters. In any case, welcome.

      • Thank you for the welcome.

        Do what do you think about that guy Parkin and his Beam Propulsion project?
        Pretty exciting; if it does not work in the atmosphere it will probably work in space and on the moon.

  4. Excellent post.

    A few suggestions though.

    I would change Nationalism with Glory which is broader. Glory includes doing something great because it is great. This can be for national reasons (e.g. China) or for humanity. Going to the Moon was a full mix of both.

    I would also add Survival. I am guessing that by Saving the Earth you mean through environmentalism. E.g. Space-based solar power. Learning how to live in sustainable ways. Drawing upon solar system resources as the resources of the Earth run out, etc. By saving the Earth, you save the people who live on the Earth. But, if someone accidentally creates a chemical ecophage, all is lost. We first need to establish an off-Earth self-sustaining colony ASAP. One could argue that this falls under the settlement category. But Settlement rarely captures the importance, urgency and single-minded strategy of a Survival goal. It should have it’s own category and settlement is more along the line of Destiny.

    • Thank you for the visit and for the suggestions.

      The reason I chose the categories I did was to be reasonably focused. In my opinion, “Glory” is rather broad and would lead to bleed-over into the other propositions besides Nationalism, such as the third one on Science, or in ones that I don’t see as valid value propositions for space, such as religion. Same for “Survival” – I believe survival is captured in the fourth and fifth propositions on Saving the Earth and Settlement. Additionally, “Survival” in the context of space exploration would be skeptically scrutinized for relevancy when so many other pressing needs speak directly to survival – wars, famine, etc.

    • “But, if someone accidentally creates a chemical ecophage, all is lost. We first need to establish an off-Earth self-sustaining colony ASAP.”

      I am with you 110% on that John. We seem to disagree on eveything else though.

      That engineered bird flu scares hell out of me. No one else seems to be worried though. Maybe we deserve to go extinct for being too stupid.

  5. “For me, that goal is to return to the Moon, to stay.”

    Amen Brother.
    I was hoping for sidemount cargo and got SLS. I guess I will have to settle for that. Now we need more money to fly it 8 or 10 times a year for the next 30 years!

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