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The Ends and The Means - The Next 30 Trips - Issue #7
Informal Launch Co. motto:
"There's no point in going to space if we're all miserable when we get there."
Once It Takes Off, It'll All Be Worth It 🚀✨
That was the refrain on the launch pad I ever helped build, almost 10 years ago, long before The Launch Company. We heard it on repeat for 18 long months as we designed, built, activated, and then operated the entire pad, all at the same time. We often worked 7 days a week and better than 12 hours a day and yet we were still adding features after the rocket had rolled out of the hangar to the pad. Heck, we were still activating systems for the first time during the launch campaign. It was a wild ride.
"Once it takes off, it'll all be worth it."
It was our mantra and I believed it; I bought in fully:
Super long days, extremely high stress, and often toxic management. Once it takes off it'll all be worth it.
Changing requirements, blame culture, hero mode. Once it takes off it'll all be worth it.
Burnout, firing teammates, just one more sprint *for real this time, I know we said that LAST time but this time we mean it wE pRoMiSe* Once it takes off it'll all be worth it.
In essence, we were being told that the ends would justify the means. That watching the rocket lift off into the new morning would be an instant balm for the wounds we'd inflicted on ourselves, and one another, over the preceding 18 months.
Of course, the end we were pursuing, the launch of a small science payload for our friends at the Canadian Space Agency, could not possibly achieve all that.
"I Would Give Anything" 🥺➡️😲
An aside: Some reading this may be tempted to think, "I would give anything to have been a part of that!"
Maybe! But, likely not. I interviewed a lot of people who wanted "more than anything" to be a part of the mission, whichever one it was, until I told them how I spent my Sundays. Until I told them how much vacation I had saved up and that it had stopped accruing. Until I explained how, during big pushes, I had given up everything but the bare necessities to try and get at least six hours of sleep before heading right back to work. There was no time for anything but fast meals, a shower, and bed. Over time, everything became a big push. There was no ebb, only constant, unending flow.
Similarly, I recall, back when I was on the landing barges, going out to sea for the first missions, that people were constantly trying to come along "to be a part of history" ... right up until they heard about the bunkbed living quarters, understood the amount of work that we did each day at sea, were told that we'd be gone a week or two and no amount of seasickness would bring the boat back, and grokked the many risks of swinging between two vessels on a rope out on the open ocean, day or night, often in storms.
Those of us who did go, though, often did give anything - whatever it took to make the mission a success - and some gave nearly everything with close calls working on the open ocean. Many of my friends, myself included, lost marriages and partnerships. Others gave their health and well-being. One friend of mine even gave his leg below the knee, getting it crushed between two boats, in an accident during an operation at sea.
There are those, when I share these accounts, that don't believe that this is how it was. I find that those safely on the sidelines, with no way into the game, often cheer loudest (except for maybe the team owner watching from the box, but that's another story altogether) and that the proportion of people's baseless exuberance declines in proportion to increasing proximity to the action.
So, to close this aside, perhaps you would have given anything to be part of the hard space things. But would it have been worthwhile? Perhaps, but only if you could achieve your desired end by some means that didn't destroy you in the process. Back then, I simply couldn't.
Three Strikes; I'm Out ⚾💨
I consider the launch pad at Vandenburg SLC-4E the first strike in my journey of understanding ends and means. If it was wiser then, I could have done a better job navigating the stresses and demands, instead of letting them consume me.
This first strike was, at least, an earnest attempt. The proverbial pitch was too fast, and I swung too hard. I was acclimating to the big leagues. However, my second strike was pure foolishness. In essence, I tried to make up for my first strike by swinging extra hard the second time around. This was my time in Recovery, getting the landing barges through early design, build, and out to first missions.
I figured that the result of the unsustainable way I had approached the launch site build - poor diet, no sleep, no exercise, and no boundaries on the work - was a fluke and that by *swinging even harder* I could knock this new project out of the park, silence my doubters (myself), and enjoy a little victory lap around the bases as a treat.
Other than this being, in hindsight, a dumb plan, there was also a something else I didn't realize. Simply, I didn't understand that the pitch could arrive even faster and, at the risk of beating this metaphor into the ground, I whiffed it so damn hard that I spun around in a dizzying circle, fell down on the ground, and let the bat bonk me on the head.
I'm talking average of four hours sleep a night; absolutely no exercise; red meat & beer for dinner every night; sugar & caffeine combos every morning to wake up; living out of a single suitcase in a hotel for nearly a year; and my entire existence devoted to the build, test, and operation of the landing barges. The end entirely engulfed any attempt to manage the means. Woof. Barely survived that one.
My third and final strike came with my company, The Launch Company. To co-opt a popular meme: "Men will literally start an aerospace company to avoid going to therapy."
It's true! But in my defense, I told myself, we were going to do aerospace right. And we did (and do)! We work normal hours on a variety of fun projects. Recently, a new employee told that came from a different aerospace company told me he was shocked by how much we all genuinely seem to like one another. Our clients have told us many, many times how much they like working with us because we are so nice, calm, and focused on solving the problem. Our little mantra is: "There's no point in going to space if we're all miserable when we get there!"
Yeah, but back to baseball for a second. For the third pitch, I was expecting a fastball. What I got, instead, was a changeup. Because the issue this time wasn't building a good culture, setting good boundaries, or doing work in a sustainable way (though, we do work hard on each of those!).
No, the issue this time was the real issue the whole time. I just couldn't run from it anymore. The issue, of course, was me. And it was all exposed the day after I completed the sale of my company.
The day before was pure celebration. I had finally achieved my dream and our team had done it our way! It felt great. But then I woke up the next day and all my problems were still there. No magic had come in the night and cured me. All my neuroses, and concerns, and worries were sitting right there waiting patiently. I was still me and life was still life. I got up, cleaned the house, went to work, and made dinner. My worries still consumed me, but they took on new angles. In the end, I hadn't transmuted into pure golden light, or whatever.
We had done everything right with The Launch Company. But, I had convinced myself that if I created some external thing the right way, it would solve all my internal challenges. The dual issue is that I was still focused on creating something external, and I was foolishly expecting some validating "end" to come along and save me.
Finally, I saw clearly. There was never going to be an end. There was nothing I was going to achieve where suddenly everything was going to be alright. Only the means exist and only the means matter.
There Are No Ends, Only Means ☸️
Guess what. I did it. I went to therapy. I am still going. Please clap.
It has helped me realize that our real work is not building and launching rockets. Or creating tech companies. Or working on a farm. Or making cardboard boxes, or whatever it is we all do to earn a living in this world. Obviously our identities cannot come solely from the work we do, and similarly neither can our salvation.
External validation cannot fix us. Please take it from the Type-A Virgo Eldest Son that there is no amount of achievement that can paper over the emptiness we may each feel inside. To continue to search for ourselves in this way is to perpetuate a lie.
That isn't to say that we shouldn't pursue lofty goals or that we should all become cynics. Rather, I am trying to say that it is the means by which we do whatever work we choose that will deliver us to some better place. We must work patiently and gamely to an end that we will never truly achieve. To borrow from Rilke, we have circled the primordial tower for thousands of years. We will keep circling.
The means are the practice by which we engage with ourselves, our community, and our world to get better. It is a search for ourselves through our interactions with the world.
When I look back on the way I handled my "three strikes", I feel a complex relationship with the memories. The people I worked with day-to-day were some of the best people I ever met and we worked hard to protect one another from the chaos raining down from upper levels of management. But, it was also, simply, an unsustainable way for me to live.
The ends simply could not justify the means that were required. Still, I wouldn't trade them, because I learned so much, so quickly, about how I actually wanted to shape my life. For that, I am thankful.