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Astronaut Keynotes GTC

"Leaders are not lone eagles flying high above the ground. It's more like a bunch of penguins wandering around, crowded and a little smelly"

by / February 3, 2006
Life has a lot to do with how you look at it. Rick Searfoss has looked at it from space. He's photographed the top of Everest in his shirtsleeves from the Space Shuttle, and watched a rat embrace a floating ball of water and drink it in the weightlessness of orbit. When some expensive equipment broke loose during liftoff, Searfoss -- an assistant scoutmaster in Houston at the time -- used a scout knot to secure it. Throughout his keynote presentation on the closing day of GTC in Austin, he focused on the importance of perspective and teamwork to create the future. Being off the planet helps one see things differently, he said.

Rick Searfoss
From space, are human beings just "grains of sand" -- as one audience member asked -- or "spiritual beings having a human experience," as stated by Wednesday's keynoter Ken Carter. To Searfoss, great advances are created by individuals who have perspective, purpose, people and programs channeled into "what we do on a daily basis."

"Kennedy gave us the purpose to walk on the moon by the end of the decade," said Searfoss. "Kennedy said 'we choose to do it not because it is easy, but because it is hard.' What value is it," said Searfoss, "to go for something that doesn't push you to the maximum? Choose to do the hard things. Even if you fall short, you can accomplish great things."

"Passion is a very powerful thing," he told the mostly government audience. "Have a mission that matters. Public service matters." Flying has always been his passion, said Searfoss, and now that he's retired from the Air Force, he is flying experimental planes, and was chief judge on the Ansari X Prize that awarded a $10 million prize to a private team that piloted a rocket -- which according to news reports was powered by nitrous oxide and rubber -- more than 70 miles high.

One must work though complexity to arrive at simplicity, he said.

There are two types of innovation, said Searfoss. Operations innovation is scrambling to fix a problem. NASA used modeling and simulation to prepare astronauts for the unexpected. Real-world experience -- such as the use of that scout knot -- is also valuable in solving an immediate situation. Searfoss related a partial life-support system failure on one of his missions and how it was solved by operations innovation. Public sector CIOs did this in response to Hurricane Katrina, he said.

The second type of innovation, Searfoss called "development innovation." That's how you build the future, he said "with nimble focused teams, that design, build, and test, test, test, test." That way, you "fail forward" learning as you go.

Searfoss said the principles he uses are not new, but they work. Leaders must be aware of relationships, build trust and confidence. He said he became a jet pilot believing the United States and Russia might go to war one day. Then Searfoss showed a video of a Russian Cosmonaut carrying a U.S. flag, in a joint U.S.-Russian mission to the Mir Space Station. "Look at all the opportunities we have to open things up, to communicate," he said.

"Leaders are not lone eagles flying high above the ground," said Searfoss. "It's more like a bunch of penguins wandering around, crowded and a little smelly." A "leader penguin" looks down into the water and plunges in, and the rest dive in after him."

Opportunities are like sunrises in space, he said. They happen very quickly, and then they are over. Seizing an opportunity or photographing a sunrise must be done quickly, or the moment is gone. In the short term we overestimate what we can do. A project due on Thursday is still being worked on the following Sunday night. But in the long term, he said, we underestimate what can be done. Robert Goddard shot off his first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and was ridiculed by the newspapers for several years thereafter. One newspaper said he "missed the moon by 200,000 miles." But only 43 years after Goddard's first rocket attempt, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

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Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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