January in Florida is rarely cold, at least not by normal people’s standards. If it is cold it’s usually overnight, and by mid-morning it’s warm enough to stand outside without much hassle.
This particular morning I wasn’t noticing the cold at all. I had my red sweater my aunt had made me, I had the warmth of the sun on the playground, and I had just about as much excitement as a five-and-a-half year old could muster. I had pleaded with my kindergarten teacher to let us go outside and watch. I even recruited friends — Rex, Jessica, Adam, basically anyone who would listen to me — to pester her.
Pretty much no one else in the class understood why I was so excited, but they saw it as a way to get outside and go play — so I had support. She argued that it was cold outside, and that we could watch it on the TV we were already watching — but those are not valid arguments when talking to an excited five year old. Mrs. Mills eventually relented and we all clamored out of the classroom.
When we got outside, we found at least half of our small elementary school had come out to join us.
The playground was on the east side of the school, allowing for a view that was only obstructed by a few far away trees. Some of the older kids had even been enterprising enough to climb the dangerously high slide, to watch from there. They were getting in trouble for “holding up the line” when the glow started peeking though the trees.
Kids and teachers started pointing and yelling.
There it is. The Space Shuttle.
The sound. The sound made it to us. Only the lower rumbles could make it this far away from the cape, but there it was — so much power. So much awesome.
And then the thing happened.
It’s hard to explain succinctly — but that moment is when I became who I am.
I was standing next to my teacher when it happened. After all, I had pulled her outside to watch this cool thing. I watched the smile disappear off her face and I instantly wanted to make it all better. “It’s okay,” I remember telling her. “It’s s’posed to do that… see? it’s just the cloud from the boosters coming off.” My voice trailed off because I knew I was wrong.
I had no idea what had happened, but I knew that it wasn’t okay.
“No” she said. “That’s not it.” I watched her struggle with what to say next, and realize that there were simply no words.
I immediately realized how silly it was for me to talk about something I knew I didn’t understand.
From typelogic.com :
When it comes to their own areas of expertise — and INTJs can have several — they will be able to tell you almost immediately whether or not they can help you, and if so, how. INTJs know what they know, and perhaps still more importantly, they know what they don’t know.
I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what went wrong instead of trying to share my thoughts and feelings with others. I went from being open and talking to everyone in class to lost in my own thoughts.
It’s really amazing as I run back through my memories. I remember the morning very vividly. I remember the classroom, the TV, the people I interacted with, what I was wearing, and where the Challenger appeared between the trees. My memories of the rest of the day, though, are basically completely gone. I don’t remember my environment from that moment on. All I remember is some absolutely insane mind-of-an-almost-six-year-old theories on how the crew (and craft, in some cases) could have gotten away safely.
More typelogic.com :
Whatever system an INTJ happens to be working on is for them the equivalent of a moral cause to an INFJ; both perfectionism and disregard for authority may come into play, as INTJs can be unsparing of both themselves and the others on the project.
Emphasis mine. Regardless how you feel about Myers-Briggs, this describes me quite accurately. Just ask anyone who’s spent time on a project with me.
I got asked yesterday why I know so much about spacecraft and NASA history in general — and that’s what inspired this post.
The simple answer is that understanding and fixing what I saw happen in January 1986 has been a moral cause for me since it happened. In the over 30 years since then, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about Challenger, and later Columbia. Yes, even the conspiracy theories.
It may sound like I’ve spent 30+ years dangerously obsessed with one topic — that’s not entirely true. After all, people can have many moral causes, many things they care about deeply.
It’s also important to differentiate the disaster itself with what I instantly focused on: finding and preventing the kinds of failures that caused it.
I haven’t spent 30+ years thinking about the Challenger crew’s long wait in a tumbling box, waiting to hit the ocean. I’ve spent 30+ years working to deeply understand and improve complex systems, so the flavors of failures we’ve seen in spaceflight can be avoided elsewhere.
Avoidable failure always sucks.
Back to the kindergarten classroom, I spent the afternoon not talking about the disaster itself, and instead thinking quietly about how to fix it or avoid it. In doing so I discovered another thing that has come to define me; basically the ability to shut off emotion and, in the words of Hollywood Gene Kranz, “Work the problem.”
To complicate matters, INTJs are usually extremely private people, and can often be naturally impassive as well, which makes them easy to misread and misunderstand.
I’ve had people call me Vulcan. I guess it could be worse.
A while back, my six year old son and I were walking around the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. He was wearing his “space suit” shirt and asking me all kinds of questions. We had a great time.
Then we stumbled across this, completely unexpectedly:
It was only then, 30+ years later, that I finally got around to really beginning to process the emotion the Shuttle disasters left me with.
Let’s just say it wasn’t fun.
There’s sadness, of course. Lots of it. I’ve read a lot about both disasters, and I grieve for all of the people involved. Weirdly, I even feel myself grieving for the machines themselves.
But as strong as the sadness is, it’s not the primary emotion. Both Shuttle disasters, Challenger especially, were clearly preventable. The primary emotion quickly becomes anger.
I think astronaut Story Musgrave put it best:
Challenger was not an engineering accident. NASA was told about the problem [of the O-rings in low temperature]. So then the memory turns to solid anger. It turns to rage that people were so negligent.
The Shuttle disasters could have been prevented in many different ways, including engineering fixes, process fixes, and (definitely) leadership / management fixes.
They didn’t have to happen. We didn’t have to have the grief, sadness, and anger these failures produced. They happened because we didn’t do what was needed to prevent them.
That’s why I fix things.
I fix things to prevent the sadness and anger preventable failures bring.
I’ve gotten fairly good at fixing things over the past 30+ years, and while I was editing this post I was inspired to write a quick Thing-Fixing Manifesto. Be sure to go check it out!
Thanks for reading!