“Don’t taunt the space station”

It is by no means a new revelation that technical people can still have their goofy beliefs. Trained scientists or engineers will often be found to read horoscopes or watch ghost shows on TV. It’s easy for humans to separate their professional training from the things that interest them in their spare time. This is known as “cognitive dissonance”. Mission Control is no different. Here, superstition abounds.

Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon

Some flight controllers won’t wear red in the Flight Control Room, for fear that it’s association with “Warning” messages on board ISS will bring about bad things on shift. This is much like professional athletes who wear their lucky jersey or go through the same routines before every match, even if it seemingly has nothing to do with athletic success. The best example is Rafael Nadal, the notoriously meticulous best-in-the-world tennis player. Nadal has a long list of strange rituals and superstitions but my favorite is how he has to line up his water bottles just so when taking breaks between every set. You would think it’s obvious that what makes Nadal great is his dedication, his years of hard practice, and his raw power and talent. Yet, lining up his water bottles is important to him and he does it for a reason. I have no idea what he consciously thinks he is doing that for. Subconsciously, I think it probably has to do with control. Nadal can’t control the conditions, his opponents play that day, or the luck of the bad line call – but he can control where his bottles are facing. Every bit of control can calm the mind.

Mary Roach in her book Packing For Mars  probably described this phenomenon at NASA best when discussing the bafflingly ubiquitous safety signs at Johnson Space Center – signs warning about 90 degree corners in the office or telling you to hold the hand rail in the stairway. Sometimes they seem to go beyond a common sense level of safety at work into the realm of neuroses. Mary writes,

Perhaps focusing on minor workplace dangers helps space agencies cope with the very major threats they deal with on every mission: explosions, crashes, fire, depressurization. Like war, space is a formidable bogeyman that takes its victims no matter how carefully you what-if the situation. You can’t control the weather or gravity, but you can control the shoes your visitor wears and the amount of water that drips onto the floor from her umbrella.

This makes a lot of sense to me and when I read Mary’s book last year, this was somewhat of a revelation. It is true that some of the biggest mistakes in spaceflight history were preventable disasters – Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, Apollo 13. But at the same time, these failures were not a single event – they were all what is known as an error chain. Months or years of mismanagement or lack of technical diligence set up the dominoes that would fall with a single flick of fate. In the case of Apollo 13, you could not have predicted that “stirring the tanks” would lead to the worst in-space disaster in history. No one wants to be the guy that sends the command that tips the error chain over the cliff.

On ISS, stuff breaks. The station is over 10 years old in some modules and things are wearing out. Even without an epic error chain laying in wait, power converters are going to reset randomly, pumps are going to stop working, and attitude control gyroscopes are going to grind to a halt. This inevitability of malfunctions is what leads to uneasiness and the need for control. The most common piece of superstition you will hear around Mission Control on a quiet night is the phrase “don’t taunt the space station”. If you want to get nasty looks, mention halfway through a slow Saturday evening that “it’s been so quiet today”. This is basically tantamount to telling the pitcher in the bottom of the 9th “hey, have you noticed no one’s hit one of your pitches yet today?”

So this brings me to last Tuesday night when I was sitting on the 3 pm to midnight shift on one of the slowest weeks in the year. I was bored so I was thinking to myself that I just wish something would happen. Not a minute later, my headset started beeping with alert tones – you should have seen me jump out of my chair. Control Moment Gyroscope number 1 was having one of its telemetry hiccups and the guidance computer had lost its data. The guidance computer regained communication quickly, but the meaning was clear: the gods of flight control had fired a warning shot at this rookie ADCO – we are listening.

I still don’t think I’m a very a superstitious person, but maybe I’ll stop wearing red and take some advice from Dr. Cox.

March 26, 2012 10:15 pm

7 Responses to ““Don’t taunt the space station””

  • CTarleton says:

    Great post!

  • Love hearing little insights like this – thanks for sharing!

  • Same thing in biotech: never taunt the robots, never read plates on a Friday or 13th (and of course never both), and always keep guard at the robots to scare off menehune.

  • Robert says:

    I believe the term you’re looking for is “compartmentalization”. Cognitive dissonance is the opposite: “…a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.”

    • Ben H. says:

      Interesting. You may be correct. I’ll look up some alternate definitions and post an edit if I agree. Good catch.

    • Ben H. says:

      I like Wikipedia’s definition of compartmentalization (source is some psychology textbook). I quote:

      “Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves. Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states.”

      So I think both terms apply to the idea I was trying to convey and it’s clear enough as I originally wrote it.

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