Launching within a Culture of Excellence

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- What is excellence? How do we get there? How can I instill a culture of excellence within my unit? These are all questions leaders ask as they prepare to address their Airmen for the first time.

If I were to answer these questions as a "butter bar," you would probably have yourself a good laugh and walk away. Therefore, who better to respond than a well-seasoned master sergeant? Master sergeants are right at the heart of leadership and the culture of excellence. They must master both sides of the fence, ensuring mission success while interfacing with and inspiring their people. In order to be an excellent unit, an attitude of excellence must pervade all ranks within the chain of command. If a link is missing or broken, the unit cannot achieve excellence.

Excellence is founded upon the principles of hard work and lessons learned through years of experience ... good, bad and indifferent. It is not built overnight. Just like a house, excellence is built upon a firm foundation, a foundation built by our predecessors.
"It should be the duty of every soldier to reflect on the experiences of the past, in the endeavor to discover improvements in his particular sphere of action, which are practicable in the immediate future."  - B.H. Liddell Hart, Thoughts on War, 1944

As Master Sgt. David Grimes, spacelift flight NCO in charge, looks toward retirement, he sees his greatest legacy and contribution to be the mentoring he provides the younger Airmen. He uses his years of experience as a Peacekeeper team chief, evaluator, and instructor to improve the efficiency of the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron booster processing teams and to ensure that each one of the team members understands their roles and responsibilities. Sergeant Grimes's goal is to leave behind a good product with "all Minotaur IV 'i's dotted and 't's crossed." To him, excellence is not focused on the individual, but based on their contribution to the team. Excellence is personal and integral to the organization.

The launch business carries some of the greatest risks; there are no second chances. Our maintenance and operations teams must be perfect every time. The Peacekeeper and Atlas V programs are just two examples of near perfect programs. Out of 33 operational Peacekeeper test launches, only one failed. Though Atlas V is a relatively new program, it has an impressive success rate of 93 percent. Despite a minor launch vehicle anomaly, the National Reconnaissance Office boasts a 100 percent mission success rate aboard Atlas V boosters.

In the launch business, one mistake can lead to mission failure. In the event of a propulsion system failure during launch, satellite repair is all but impossible. Mistakes become immediately apparent and the effects are expensive and long-lasting.

According to Tech. Sgt. Chris Lanchoney, launch operations craftsman and go-to NCO for the Transporter Erector System, "excellence in safety is the number one rule for our maintenance teams." This is especially true out at Wallops Island, the 1st ASTS's deployed launch location. At Wallops, overhead crane operations are necessary for booster movements and emplacement.

"There are plenty of opportunities for our guys to get hurt when just one person is not on top of their game," said Sergeant Lanchoney. "It is all about demand response and being a good Wingman to ensure we all do our jobs correctly the first time." Our nation's defense is much too important to compromise.

Not all of us are maintainers, so how do the officers in the launch group contribute to excellence? Well, most of us are launch vehicle or system engineers. Here in the 1st ASTS, 2nd Lt. Dan Ward, our newest lieutenant, articulates the standard of daily excellence best: "We define excellence as successfully launching payloads on-on time and on-target. Moreover, we strive for excellence by equipping our leaders with the necessary information to make critical day-of-launch decisions."

Looking down the road, the 30th Space Wing is in an amazing position. We have the ability to significantly impact how the United States accesses space. However, unless we accept a new, even radical, mindset we cannot expect to make launch and range operations more "Operationally Responsive." When assuming increased risk due to schedule constraints, it is essential to the warfighter that we also increase our demand for excellence. Not only do the satellites we launch and missile defense tests we conduct guard freedom here at home, they are critical to daily life-and-death operations for our deployed warfighters.

"Excellence can be achieved, if we: Care more than others think is wise, Risk more than others think is safe, Dream more than others think is practical, Expect more than others think is possible."  - Deborah Johnson-Ross

So today, when you head home from work, can you rest easy because your family is safe, based on your pursuit of excellence in your daily duties? Keep striving and dreaming, and remember that if you risk nothing, you gain nothing.