‘Always speak up,’ former NASA astronaut tells safety pros during Opening Session
Having a father who was a fire inspector for the New York City Fire Department, Mike Massimino learned about safety early in his life.
“I was one of those kids who could never play with firecrackers,” the former NASA astronaut told attendees during the Opening Session of the 2022 NSC Safety Congress & Expo on Monday at the San Diego Convention Center. “My dad instilled in me the idea of service to others, doing something that made the world a better place. He made it safe for people to go to work, to be in their apartment buildings. That’s a big part of what all of you do.”
Safety was an integral part of Massimino’s path into space, which at times was a bumpy journey.
He admitted to having a fear of heights, as well as being an overly cautious driver. “It drives my wife crazy.”
Massimino was rejected by NASA multiple times and even was medically disqualified because he failed the eye exam. He eventually was accepted into the astronaut class in 1996. What he quickly learned was that safety was part of everything he did as an astronaut, and those lessons apply to everyone in the safety profession.
One of those lessons is communicating with everyone on a team, even if it means questioning a more senior colleague. “That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.”
For a training flight aboard a high-performance jet, the pilot had more than 1,000 flight hours – far more than Massimino’s five hours. Just before takeoff, the control tower changed the plane’s takeoff direction, which Massimino entered into the plane’s computer but didn’t confirm with the pilot to ensure he had heard it.
“The tower comes over the radio: ‘NASA, 911. Hard left now! Hard left now!’” he recalled hearing shortly after takeoff.
After narrowly avoiding a midair collision with another airplane, the pilot asked Massimino if the tower had made a flight change before takeoff. Massimino acknowledged that it had. “He asked, ‘You knew we were going the wrong direction?’” Massimino recalled. “I said, ‘Yes. I thought you knew what you were doing.’”
After landing the plane, the pilot offered a valuable message.
“He gets in my face and he says, ‘Mass, look, it doesn’t matter that I’m the pilot in command and I have thousands of hours and you’ve got hardly any. We almost got killed today because you didn’t say anything.’”
The lesson for safety professionals in any field is to communicate at all times, and for leaders and senior members of a team to listen.
“It’s important to always speak up, but it’s also important for the leader, the experienced person, to accept people speaking up. By not speaking up, you’re putting yourself at risk.”
Massimino also discussed the massive changes within the space program in recent years, from NASA controlling every aspect of a launch and mission to now working with commercial organizations to continue space exploration with a more automated process.
“A lot of times, change is hard to accept, especially technology. We’ve been doing it this way for decades. Why are we doing this now? Well, it’s better and it’s safer. More people are going to be able to go to space more safely than we’ve had in the past.”
To kick off the event, National Safety Council President and CEO Lorraine M. Martin welcomed attendees and encouraged them to get the most out of this year’s Safety Congress & Expo by learning from the event’s various educational sessions – and each other.
“Look around this room. You are the nation’s leading safety and health professionals.” Martin applauded the attendees for being nimble throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every safety veteran of the pandemic had their world shift under their feet overnight, but you rose up.”
Also recognizing representatives from MSA Safety, exhibiting for the 100th time at the annual NSC event, Martin thanked the company for its “dedication and commitment to safety.”
– Barry Bottino, reporting from San Diego