Why Climb the Highest Mountain?

“But why, some say, the moon?  Why choose this as our goal?  And they may ask, why climb the highest mountain?  Why thirty five years ago fly the Atlantic?  Why does Rice play Texas?  We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.  Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.  Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

This is the anniversary — you know I’m big on anniversaries — of the first ascent of Mt. Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.  Even JFK compared going into space with climbing the highest mountain.  Since a good friend and college, Scott Parazynski, just completed his personal conquest of that mountain, it seems timely to review the comparison.


Not including 2009, over 4,100 successful summits of Mt. Everest have been made by 2,700 different people.  210 fatalities have occurred on the mountain with 120 bodies remaining unrecovered on its upper slopes.  Thus the overall fatality rate is about 5% on the world’s highest mountain.  But Mt. Everest it not the most dangerous high mountain.  Here are the top three:  Annapurna (8,091 m) 130 climbers have summitted Annapurna, while 53 have died. The overall fatality rate is thus 41%. Nanga Parbat (8,125m) 216 climbers have summitted Nanga Parbat and 61 have died. The overall fatality rate thus 28.24%. K2 (8,611 m) 198climbers have summitted the world’s second highest peak. 53 have died. K2’s overall fatality rate is 26.77%.

The total number of people who have been in earth orbit (including those who went to the moon):  465 individuals making just over 1000 total trips.  If suborbital flights are included, this number gets a bit larger.  Fatalities:  including Apollo 1 and the single fatality in the X-15 program, 22 people have lost their lives in space – or an overall fatality rate of just over 2%.

DIFFICULTY:  Both getting to earth orbit and climbing the highest mountains are incredibly difficult, right at limits of what we can do.

TEAMWORK:  Both ventures require large teams to plan, provide and coordinate logistics, and execute the plan — even when just a very few of the team members actually attempt the summit.

EXTREME ENVIRONMENT:  I recommend Ed Vestur’s excellent book “No Shortcuts to the Top” to explain the extreme environments encountered above 8,000 meters. 

SO . . . .that leads us to the question of how space exploration and mountain climbing are different.  That is a question that I would like you to comment on.  So take it away!




Moving Forward

After making a blog post, two or three days may pass before I get back to see what comments have come in and to post those that are pertinent (it is surprising how many pharmaceutical companies I have never heard of want to post their ads in blog comment spaces).  However, my email overflowed this weekend with comments to my last post.  This evening, I have posted almost of those comments at this site.  I have also been reading some of the comments on other parts of the internet, I think it is time to refocus as we start the week.

First of all, the Barriers Analysis Team of the JSC Innovation and Inclusion council who put together the video, also provided some recommendations to alleviate those problems.  Justin Kugler provided an excellent description of those proposals on the Open NASA website.  His words are far better than anything I could write on the subject, so I recommend you go read them at this address: 


If you are interested in my thoughts as to how you can avoid being trapped in a black hole of innovation destruction, I would offer some thoughts on how to lead your leader — as it appeared in the NASA Knowledge Sharing Academy publication.


So here are at least a couple of ways in which we can build the culture at NASA toward being more open to innovation, and when we run into the barriers that stifle dissent there may be a few tools to use to overcome those barriers.

Now, if I might, I would like to clarify a couple of personal points which have arisen in the discussion.

For the record, I personally think that John Shannon has made a better Space Shuttle Program Manager than I did.  I believe he has brought stability, rationality, and clarity to the Space Shuttle Program in ways that I did not and could not.  He has been a faithful friend.  The internet chatter that there was some political maneuvering on his part when job changes were made in the program office is both inaccurate and repugnant to me.   

Going on . . .

One of the reasons that the video so powerfully affected me was that I have been on both sides of the table.  Oh yeah, I have stifled plenty of dissent and innovation in my time.  Some of it even recently.  I believe that I am a better manager and leader than I was five years ago, or even one year ago.  And, God willing, I will be a better and more open manager next year or five years from now.  So if you hear stories about “bad Wayne”, well, they are probably true. I wish they weren’t.  But my goal is to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday.  And I am daily astonished and amazing by learning something that I didn’t know the day before.

Finally, I would like to say that my purpose in writing these blogs is to help NASA become a better place.  Sometimes that takes the form of telling a story from the ‘old days’ — but always a story with a point. Sometimes it is describing a good example of leadership; sometimes it is pointing out a bad example — to be avoided.   Sometimes a post is merely an attempt to explain some arcane aspect of what we are doing to the general  public in a way that I hope is comprehensible to the layperson.  So my post on stifling dissent is nothing more than an attempt to help the NASA culture become better than it is.

With the greatest of respect to all my colleagues, I think NASA is the best hope for our country and our world.  If the current organization is less than perfect, that is because it is made up of fragile and limited human beings.  Every one of those NASA employees that I have met have only one goal: doing what is best and most productive to explore the universe.   We don’t always succeed, and we certainly don’t always agree on the interim goals but we are united in a common purpose.  There is nowhere else I would care to work.