Rod Pyle: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris


Pyle, RodRod Pyle is author of multiple best-selling books on space exploration and innovation for major publishers including Smithsonian, McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins, Prometheus/Random House, Sterling and Carlton. His most recent books are Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success for McGraw Hill (March 2014), which the Library Journal called “A gripping history of NASA… riveting… [the] writing is superb,” and, Curiosity: An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission and the People Who Made It Happen, published by Prometheus/Random House. It is listed as a “Top Ten Science and Tech Book for July” by The Guardian. Rod wrote and co-created The Apollo Leadership Experience for NASA and The Conference Board, which he taught at the Johnson Space Center for C-suite executives from companies like Michelin, Conoco-Philips, Ebay and The Federal Reserve. He continues to give keynotes and seminars on innovation and leadership.

His 2012 Destination Mars (Prometheus) was heralded as “The best recent overview of Mars missions” by the Washington Post, and was selected for Scientific American’s book of the month club. Rod has produced and directed numerous documentaries for The History Channel and Discovery Communications, including “Modern Marvels: Apollo 11” and “Mars: 100 Years of Discovery.”

Rod is a space journalist, writing frequent articles and creating videos for Space.com, LiveScience, Huffington Post, NBCNews Online, the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Telegraph. He is a graduate of Stanford University and the Art Center College of Design, and taught communication studies at the University of La Verne for ten years.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2. To read all of Part 2, please click here.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Innovation the NASA Way?

Pyle: I was hired in 2010 by The Conference Board to design an experiential Apollo Leadership Training program for C-suite executives and their direct reports. Working with some other experts, we fashioned a compelling and successful program that, according to the reviews, was highly motivating and inspiring. I enjoyed teaching it at the Johnson Space Center. After that, I wanted to write-up some of the things I had discovered both by delving deep into NASA’s history and spending time talking to some of the giants from the space race and shuttle eras. There seemed to be plenty of good books on leadership on the shelf, but none – and I mean, not one – trade book on innovation and NASA. I wanted to fill that gap in the market with NASA’s wonderful stories. I’m working to create a second edition, as there are so many more amazing and inspiring tales to be told.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Pyle: Plenty. The most apparent to me was the passion that these people had, and have, for their work. Talk to anyone at JPL working, for example, on the Curiosity rover. They become so excited that it can be tough for them to get the words out. They live and breathe Mars, and there is nothing else they would rather do. They are passionate, mission-driven fanatics. Isn’t that who we want driving innovation in our own organizations?

Here’s another example: before one of the Apollo flights to the moon, a technician was working on the giant Saturn rocket on the launch pad. He noticed someone hanging around the gantry and told him that he should not be near the rocket. The other guy introduced himself as the commander of the mission about to fly that exact rocket to the moon in a couple of days. The technician thought for a moment, then shook the astronaut’s hand, looking him straight in the eye. He said, “In that case, I just want you to know that nothing in this mission will fail because of me.” I think that about says it all. These folks dedicated themselves heart and soul to the space program, to the mission. If we can imbue the creative people in our own organizations with a sense of mission, and the passion that drives it, we’re 90% of the way there.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Pyle: Honestly, it’s pretty close to the proposal. If there were deviations, they came from the process of extracting lessons form the stories. The book is a collection of stories about NASA’s “finest hours”, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. In each of these stories, there are many lessons on both leadership and innovation – the trick was to find, and adequately explain – the best of them.

Morris: When and why did you first develop your keen interest in space exploration?

Pyle: I was born at the dawn of the space race, so I saw the whole thing play out from a front-row seat (at least as front-row as an adolescent could get), and what a show it was. Imagine rockets thundering off to the moon every two months to engage in great voyages of exploration, these incredible adventures. It was thrilling, just amazing. Then, when Apollo was over, we waited nearly a decade for the shuttle. It flew an impressive range of missions for 30 years and built a space station. All the while, NASA was exploring Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the other planets. It’s been a privilege to be alive during humanity’s first forays into the solar system.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent does exploration of space differ significantly from the voyages of earlier explorers such as Polo, Columbus, de Gama, Magellan, Cortes, and Drake?

Pyle: No matter how you slice it, space is hard. Look at one of the Saturn V rockets in Houston or Florida: just the top 12 feet or so on the pointy end came home. All the rest was used up getting there. And as remote as, say, the Antarctic was at the dawn of the 20th century, at least Ernest Shackleton was able to live off the land for years to save his men and get them home. If you have a problem in space, as with Apollo 13, there is no living off the land, no scavenging, no second chances. Whatever you have in that little can with you, and your inventiveness and that of your support on the ground, is all you have. Space is unforgiving.

Morris: In your opinion, how true-to-life were two films, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13? Please explain.

Pyle: Those are very different films. The Right Stuff was a parable, a lyrical story (with much dramatic license taken) about the origins of the space age. It was part mythology and part sitcom. Many liberties were taken and it made for a fun film, drawn from a fun (and somewhat more accurate) book. Apollo 13 represents a very different approach. Tom Hanks is the same age as me, and every bit as much an enthusiast. We witnessed the space race from similar perspectives, and he insisted that they get it right for the film (here the parallels between myself and Tom end, sadly). That’s why they shot so many scenes in NASA’s zero-g plane, 30-seconds at a time. That’s why the hardware is spot-on accurate. Yes, he and Ron Howard also took a few liberties with the true story, but nothing like The Right Stuff. They weren’t trying to create a modern myth with Apollo 13; they just wanted to condense some of the action and tweak a few of the moments to keep the film taut and convey a great adventure. Otherwise, it would have taken eight hours to tell that story. I thought they did a fine job – it was as accurate and true to the history as it could be.

Morris: In my review of your book for various Amazon websites, I neglected to mention another film, From Earth to the Moon. In my opinion, it is superb. What do you think?

Pyle: That HBO mini-series is another Tom Hanks work of passion. Again, there was tremendous attention to detail and accuracy. I think there were times where it slowed the dramatic pacing a bit, but it was worth it. Hanks was, for the first time, dramatically memorializing the bulk of America’s greatest adventure. He used a lot of lesser-known actors, and put his money into great scripting, fine directors and incredibly accurate sets. The result was a wonderfully acted and executed telling of the story of Apollo, from its origins to the end. Nobody will ever do it in quite that way again.

Morris: Opinions about Gravity seem to be somewhat divided. What do you think?

Pyle: Overall, a great romp. The director made some very brave decisions: let space be silent like it really is, use the shuttle in a film after it had been retired, and let Sandra Bullock carry the vast bulk of the film in an outstanding solo performance. The smashup of NASA hardware was hard to watch, and it alienated some people I know. And there were some funky bits of bad physics in the film – memorably when George Clooney is tugging on Bullock’s tether after his forward motion had already been arrested. Something kept pulling on him – some odd non-Newtonian force, like anti-love? – so that they could have the cliche “leave me, save yourself” moment. But it was an intentional space opera/adventure, so overall I think it held together well.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of several passages.

First, Innovation from the Old World (23-26)

Pyle: When Wernher von Braun came to America after WWII, he brought with him a way of doing business that had evolved from his aristocratic origins, through slimly-funded German rocket societies in the 1930’s, and finally via the Nazi war machine. Their methods were not necessarily compatible with the American way of doing things, to say the least. But he and his fellow German engineers (he brought out over 100) took the best of what they had experienced and blended it skillfully with the American way. The result was a branch of NASA that had remarkable lateral communication and where everyone was responsible, at least in part, to help everyone else if they could. He supported this with a passion, and it worked.

Morris: The Dirty Rag (26-28)

Pyle: Rockedyne in Canoga Park, CA built the large rocket engines that powered the Saturn V. When they arrived in Huntsville to be put into the rockets, von Braun’s German engineers tore them apart and reassembled them, bit by bit. Rocketdyne was outraged, until one of the head German engineers at Huntsville showed them a greasy rag he had found inside one of their “completed and inspected” rocket engines, in a space where a ping-pong ball, much less a rag, could have caused disaster. Overarching lesson? It was an object lesson in quality control, told with an elegantly simple, and damning, visual statement.

Morris: Fifty-One Feet of Mean (31-33)

Pyle: The X-15 was an Air Force program to test the limits of hypersonic flight at the edge of space. The evil-looking rocket plane flew 199 times with only a few accidents and one fatal crash. In every case they recovered quickly and moved on, expertly incorporating lessons learned from before. It was a military program and therefore not subject to the same political vicissitudes as the NASA’s civilian program. Overarching lesson? Bigger is not necessarily better, and sometimes fast-track, rough-and-ready programs win the day.

Morris: Finding Mars, and, Goodbye, Martians…Hello, Mars (49-53)

Pyle: When the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew past Mars in 1965, quickly snapping just 22 grainy, low-resolution images of that planet, it was a sea-change in our perceptions about both Mars and the solar system. At a time when almost nothing was known beyond what could be gleaned form an Earth-based telescope, NASA struck gold with its second robotic mission, and engaged the public worldwide with ghostly B&W images of Mars. They had almost flown without a camera onboard, but the dogged determination of a couple of scientists had placed rudimentary camera on the spacecraft. Overarching lesson? If you are going to explore space, you need to take the public along for the ride. From then on, cameras were a part of most of NASA’s missions, whether manned or robotic, and the world was awed by the results.

Morris: How Hard Can It Be? (55-60)

Pyle: Early spacewalks were akin to stunts; exploiting them for useful work in space was a tough nut to crack. NASA labored with this challenge throughout the Gemini years, and only succeeded in the final flight of that program with Buzz Aldrin’s continuous pressing for better preflight simulations. In the end, his ideas – shared by a few others – about water-based training won the day. The overarching lesson? Simulation, and lots of it, was key to success.

Morris: Just a Simple Test., and, “We’re Burning Up” (71-75)

Pyle: In January of 1967, NASA was testing the first flight-ready Apollo capsule with three astronauts, The rocket was not fueled, but the capsule was pumped full of oxygen as it would be in space. But it was at almost 15 PSI instead of the 5 PSI that is used in space. A random spark ignited a fire that killed the three astronauts immediately. As one person put it, “We had a failure of imagination…” – nobody had stopped to really consider what could happen in a pure oxygen environment at those pressures. It was an explosion waiting to happen. It set the Apollo program back well over a year, but was also an effective (though dreadful) wake-up call to NASA: take nothing for granted, evaluate every piece of hardware and every procedure, and assume nothing. Only then might you succeed (NOTE: The Soviet Union failed to do this, and ultimately failed to reach the moon as a result). Overarching lesson? Spaceflight is dangerous, and tolerates few errors. Everything must be taken into account to succeed.

Morris: The Krantz Dictum” (77-81)

Pyle: After the Apollo 1 fire and the deaths of three astronauts, Gene Kranz, the tough ex-marine flight director, assembled the Mission Control team and gave it to them straight: spaceflight is unforgiving. They had been rushing to “beat the Russians” and they all knew it. They had grown sloppy, and had failed to heed their own inner voices. From now on they would be “tough and competent,” and Mission Control would be “perfect.” This speech, in its entirety, is still posted at multiple locations in the control center almost 50 years later. Overarching lesson? Strong, dedicated leadership has become the de-facto way of doing business at Mission Control, and remains so to this day.

Morris: An Urgent Call (140-144)

Pyle: With both Apollo and the USSR’s Soyuz moon landing programs delayed by deadly accidents, the race to the moon was hotter than ever once they got back on track in 1967/68. The CIA had generated reports indicating that the Russians, if not close to a landing, were closing on the ability to at least loop the moon and steal much of Apollo’s thunder. Something needed to be done, and quickly. NASA’s lunar module was nowhere near ready to fly, and the rest of the moon rocket and the Apollo capsule had been little tested with mixed results. NASA’s bold decision? Shuffle the flight schedule and send Apollo 8 to orbit the moon (but not land) before the end of 1968. It was daring and risky… and the Apollo 8 astronauts agreed instantly to take the mission. Overarching lesson? Sometimes you need to make bold decisions and take calculated risks to leap ahead and win the day.

Morris: Coming Home: Bringing NASA’s Lessons to Your Business (263-270)

Pyle: A review of NASA’s lessons learned is of little value unless they can be applied to your own organization. Fortunately there is much to be learned from its nearly 60 years of history. Paramount among these lessons are the need for passion for innovation within the individual, and an environment conducive to innovation created by management. Both parties need to evolve a mission mentality, and commit the time and resources to allow innovation to flourish. Overarching lesson? NASA has achieved this time-and-again throughout their history, and you can too.

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To read all of Part 2, please click here.

To read Part 1, please click here.

Rod cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His LinkedIn link

His Amazon link

Huffington Post link

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