Life Lessons From Space Camp

SpaceCamp - 1986

In 1986, the Challenger disaster was fresh on everyone's mind. Six months later, SpaceCamp opened to audiences that weren't sure they wanted to see a movie about a shuttle and near disaster. For me, it was a defining moment in my childhood.

Space had always held a fascination for me from a very, very young age. I would look up at the stars and wonder who and what could be out there. I give Star Trek the credit for most of that wonder, but the Space Program and the Space Shuttle seemed like the human dream of roaming the stars was heading towards reality.

In 1986, I was still a kid full of wonder and possibility. I wanted to be an astronaut so badly, I wrote an essay to try to win a scholarship to Space Camp. I never had the chance to attend, but to this day, I still hold a very wild, wide eye dream of "going up".

The movie, which I was obsessed with for most of my young life, well, still obsessed with actually, gave me a bunch of life lessons I still think about today.

Always Worry About What You Say To Robots 

Max and Jinx develop a relationship in this movie which is completely adorable and innocent until Jinx, NASA's tiny developing AI robot, takes it into it processing that Max wants to really go to space, all because Max says something off-handed, while being sad, about wishing he was is space.

With machine learning and AI becoming a big part of software and how we manage software all these years later, I worry about what we are communicating to these small, intelligent programs, even passively.

When we are trying to determine something as simple as layout verification, or something as complex as security risks; I have to ask, what are we using as deterministic factors ourselves, and then what are we giving the software to determine this?

Our world views, especially in the US right now, with the rise of machine learning, seriously bothers me to the point that I have a very healthy skepticism about trusting machines the industry is currently programming to do tasks.

Machines don't have feelings, they can't correct for a ingrained bias for the English language, they are not often taught about cultures in an inclusive manner, because we are not focused on doing so. We are too interested in playing with the software and seeing what it can do before we actually think about what could happen and why.

I get that it's possibly a very naive view, but I recently watched a talk about a program that was designed to flag security risks. One of the criteria for this was how much was displayed on a page. The image the speaker showed to contrast this was several mobile applications where one column was trusted, and the other wasn't. It was interesting to me that the non-trusted column was all applications which appeared to be in Chinese.

While I do understand that there are a great many websites and mobile applications which could be malicious from several places known to harbor hackers which routinely commit attacks on US companies and infrastructure, I very much hesitate to lump all applications into an non-trusted category because of origin or language.

Our US/English centralist view needs to change drastically before we create something we can't stop or reprogram. The sad thing is, it might already be too late. Only time will tell.

Leadership Isn't About Being Bossy

There is an awesome quote Lea Thompson's character (Kathryn) makes while they are stuck in Space and she's considered the leader of the group but can't seem to make the right decisions, or her frustration gets the better of her and she butts in where she shouldn't.

This character was very self-assured in the beginning of the movie only to be taken down a few pegs while they were all in a crisis.

Kathryn is allowed redemption when she saves everyone by piloting the shuttle to safety while Andie is incapacitated.

The quote is:
"My mom always says that being boss and being bossy aren't the same."

Yesterday, this came back to me as I was thinking about my next career transition and mentoring.

Towards the beginning of my career, I saw myself as assertive, blunt, and realistic. I didn't think that I was coming across as anything different. I didn't think there was another way to be understood, especially in large groups of men.

Sometimes this is true, and sometimes this backfires. Over the careers I have had, I've learned better communication techniques. I've learned to try to observe first before commenting, though I admit, I still let myself react instead of think about things sometimes.

I mentioned in a talk recently that consulting was the hardest skill I've had to learn. I absolutely believe this as you have to put yourself in a leadership role whether you realize it or not, and then you have to figure out how to lead people that might not want to be led in the direction they are asking you to take them. It's convoluted at times, and perplexing, but lessons from consulting have given me tools for understanding and engaging in better leadership practices. 

When I first started consulting with ThoughtWorks, I had several encounters where I could have done better had I understood more about the dynamics of the situations I was in at the time. Some of them were completely out of my control and I was not going to succeed regardless of the circumstances, others I've reflected on and realize that while I have a natural inclination towards leadership, maybe I wasn't being the leader I should have been, or wanted to be at the time.

People make mistakes. Leaders make mistakes. We make mistakes with our leaders. As I transition to my new role at Unity, this is a reminder to myself to be the leader I want to see in others. I want to continue to be the accidental mentor; to be the kind of leader that is helpful and directing, but not controlling. I am hopeful and excited to learn as well. I hope that by keeping learning as the centerpiece of how I want to lead, I can be successful.

Smart, Talented People Come In All Shapes, Colors, And Sizes

One of the cool things this movie taught me was that "smart" people weren't always the goofy looking dudes with glasses.

Rudy (played by Larry B. Scott) was absolutely a huge influence on me. He loved science, loved doing science like things, but was always feeling like he didn't know enough or wasn't smart enough. I identified with that so much it hurt. I seemed to be good at some things and not so good at others. Some of it wasn't my fault but rather my brain and how it read things and how it chooses to understand words. Computers literally became a lifeline to studying. If I hadn't of had access to computers when I did, I don't know that I would have made it through high school, let alone college.

Rudy's story kept playing out for me though because I was constantly trying and constantly not quite making the high marks in my science classes. Some I did, others were a struggle.  When I finally made it through Cellular Biology on the third try, I felt like I was floating on a cloud of awesome. What changed that time? Spelling. I constantly practiced my word spellings. It was often the biggest thing holding me back.

Trish (played by Kelly Preston) was an influence in a different way. I was envious of her ability to remember everything she had ever read. At the same time, I was encouraged that she wasn't the typical smart kid. She dressed funky, she loved pink and had a funky personality. She gave me hope that while I was a weirdo, in my odd shaped, and awkward self, that anyone could be who they wanted to be and actually be smart and talented.

Some of these things don't hold up in the adult world so well. People don't get the opportunities they should for all kinds of reasons, some of them very horrible, and racist. However, as a ten-year-old, I had no clue, and being clueless was kinda awesome. It gave me hope that the odd bunch of kids launched into Space could be the odd bunch of adults launched into space, that space could be there for anyone eventually. It wasn't just for governments or private businesses, but eventually it would be for the future, for kids, just like them, just like me.

We are pretty far from that today I think. The hope of routinely tripping between the Earth and the Moon for work, or vacations is still pretty far off unfortunately. If we stopped doing all of the bullshit we currently do, like wars, and crazy polarizing politics, how far could we have come towards being out there, in space, in the solar system, exploring?

Star Wars and Star Trek played huge parts in this movie as well. The idea that it was always darkest before the dawn played out a lot, even as they would see the "dawn" in various parts of the movie, over and over. My hope is that we don't have to realize our potential before humanity or our leaders do something to take us over that brink or a cliff we can't come back from.

With the Shuttle program officially ended, it's hard to watch this movie and not be nostalgic for what the Shuttle represented. The flight of humans into space. Rockets are cool and all, but they don't hold the same fascination for me as the Shuttle did. In some ways, I'll always be one of those kids who will think about when "I'm Going up."

IMdB: SpaceCamp
30 Years Later, the SpaceCamp Movie Is Still Fantastic


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