Episode #91 - Interview with Colonel Rick Searfoss, Astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander

About Colonel Richard A. Searfoss

Expert speaker, consultant, and author of LIFTOFF: An Astronaut Commander’s Countdown for Purpose-Powered Leadership, Rick Searfoss speaks with authority and expertise born of exercising leadership in the most dynamic, challenging, and dangerous of settings. Coupling that real-world experience with a powerful and exciting stage presence, he has for over a decade been inspiring and enlightening audiences worldwide.  His speaking mission: “to share the leadership, execution excellence, teamwork, and innovation lessons of human space flight to empower organizations to achieve out-of-this-world results!” Colonel Searfoss is one of only a handful of people out of many thousands of hopefuls ever selected to be an astronaut. He piloted two space flights and commanded a third, the most complex space life sciences mission ever flown, STS-90 on space shuttle Columbia. Prior to becoming an astronaut Rick was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the U.S. Air Force, with over 6100 hours flying time in 84 different types of aircraft.  A distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons (Top Gun) School and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, he’s also held executive level positions in the aerospace industry. 

In addition to piloting two space flights, and commanding a third, he consults and is a test pilot on leading-edge aerospace projects, including serving as the Chief Judge for the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first private reusable human spacecraft and test flying the world’s only liquid-fueled experimental rocket plane. Rick completed a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the USAF Academy, a master of science degree in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology on a National Science Foundation Fellowship, and USAF Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and Air War College. His numerous awards include the Tactical Air Command F-111 Instructor Pilot of the Year, Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Legion of Merit.

He was in a Volkwagen commercial, consulted on the Tom Cruise Sci-Fi movie, Oblivion. He also consulted and had a cameo appearance on the movie Green Lantern.

Colonel Rick Searfoss was the 301st person to go into space (out of 500), and the third from New Hampshire. His initial training began in 1990, 2yrs after the Challenger tragedy. He piloted STS-58 (Space Transportation System), Columbia and STS-76, Columbia, and was Commander of STS-90, Columbia. He’s flown 39 days in space, and as a test pilot has flown 84 different types of aircraft.

You can learn more about Rick at: www.Ricksearfoss.comwww.liftofftoleadership.com and www.astronautspeaker.com.

Questions from Segment 1

You were in a Volkswagen commercial. What was that like?


What’s the difference between a Pilot and a Commander on the Space Shuttle?

You’re a test pilot who’s flown 84 different types of aircraft. Did you fly any when you thought, “This is really not a good idea”?

Segment 2

Your book is Liftoff: An Astronaut Commander’s Countdown for Purpose-Powered Leadership, published in 2016, which is the first business book authored by an astronaut.

What was your primary motivation for writing the book?

You were inspired by Dr. Stephen Covey to write the book?

How do you distinguish between management and leadership?

I love your definition. “At its core: leadership simply influencing others for good,” and how it’s rooted in trust.

There’s a military saying: “The soldier is entitled to competent command.”

You have a model, the 4P Leadership Performance Balance based on 12 Key principles within four categories: Purpose, People, Perspective, and Program. We love how you start with Purpose. Why?

You write, “All airspeed and no direction just gets you lost!”

You’re 12th Principal is: Choose the Hard! When JFK issued his challenge to land a man on the moon, and return safely, by end of decade, our experience in space consisted of four flights, six orbits, and barely 10 people-hours.

The lesson for business is all profits are derived from risk.

Ed and I think After Action Reviews are the best learning tool ever devised. You write:

Mistakes are forgivable. Hiding them is not. The only way to enable learning from mistakes is to present them for dissection and correction.

The debriefing for a Space Shuttle flight was two weeks long, 8-10 hour days? The flight’s not over until after the debriefing.

Very few business use AARs. Why do you think?

Segment 3

You were Commander on STS-90 (Neurolab), which was the fourth longest STS mission. What was that like?

How well do you sleep in space?

What have you been doing since you left NASA?

Are you in favor of civilians in space?

Who do you think will make it to Mars first?

Segment 4

When you landed the Space Shuttle, you turned off AutoLand. What’s your view of autonomous cars and aviation? Will we ever completely replace the human involvement?

You paint a poignant picture in the book that during the pre-Launch preparations, you took five minutes to just pause and take in the enormity of the upcoming Mission. I know you did this as a Pilot on two prior Missions, but what was it like to do it as the Commander?

You flew F-111s in the Air Force during the early 1980s, during the Cold War, stationed in England. Then you ended up working with Russian Cosmonauts at the Mir Space after docking Atlantis. What was it like to work with former enemies?


Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.