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Teamwork and Rocket Science

In a long career of teaching and travelling it hasn’t been all whiteboards and powerpoints. One great  memory that often emerges when I am thinking about teamwork came from a course in Orlando, Florida, around 2000.

It was NOI’s premier course at the time – Mobilisation of the Nervous System – a very ‘hands on’ weekend.  I have always had a teaching philosophy in practical classes – observe the whole class and go first to tables where the participants seem to struggle and keep an eye out for the older participants. The youngsters and new grads can usually be left til later. Anyway, I spent quite a bit of time with an older group and at the end of the course one of them said “Thanks for all that help – my son is head of a launch team at Kennedy Space Centre – there is a rocket going up tonight – would you like to join us and the rocket owners on the base?”

Well…… after previous post course invitations had included having a few beers, seeing some sheep (New Zealand), reading a PhD (Australia) and treating someone’s aunt (UK)  , I just had to say “yes!!”

I hope my current perceptions are still accurate representations of the event but here goes…. We arrived at the launch site (back then a cursory look at my Australian passport was all that was needed to get on the base,  – these days I am not sure how close you would get) and then we drove to a place with the Japanese owners of the rocket. We were as close as you could get to the rocket without being undercover. The rocket, about 5 stories high, stood gleaming and bathed in light about 2 or 3 kilometres away. Lots of anticipation in the air

Up she goes!

Anyway after a couple of hours, it was starting to get a bit boring and suddenly there was a cracking over the loudspeakers. Something like “T5” which meant 5 minutes to launch. Then there was a “go/no-go”  call on all key systems and personnel. There seemed to be dozens of “go….go….go….go…. all building the anticipation. I was getting in the swing of it and realised that just one “no-go” would have meant the launch was off. Then there was a break and just like in the movies – 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1… amidst all that fire, up she went, so slowly at first. I could feel the vibrations in my feet and I was sure I could feel the heat. My mouth was wide open, the rocket entered some clouds, and for a moment before it broke through, lit them with a spectacular light. Then the cone (or that’s what they told me), broke away and the rocket continued its escape from gravity – there’s an interesting moment as you watch get smaller and smaller and you’re not quite sure when it finally disapears.  I was in awe. It must have taken just a few minutes.

I got my breath back and then someone asked me if I would like to go to the launch party with the team. Being a social sort of guy I couldn’t refuse so I had to go!  I have an image of the launch team being announced and walking into the party, so triumphant and so young. It was quite a party!

The powerful imagery has stayed with me since, evoking all kinds of metaphor- might various parts of the brain utilise some form of go/no-go decision making, where a single ‘no’ can stop an output from ‘launching’? Could teams of health professionals use a go/no-go process when making major medical decisions such as whether to proceed with surgery? What might happen if a physiotherapist, GP, occupational therapist or a psychologist were able to halt the whole process with a ‘no-go’?

The teamwork involved in launching a rocket is outstanding, it’s also incredibly complex and intricate, of course it is – it IS rocket science. But a rocket’s complexity pales into insignificance compared to any single human being. A rocket has a finite number of moving parts, each well understood on it’s own and in relation to all the other parts of the rocket. If a bit of the rocket doesn’t work it can be tested, isolated, removed and replaced. A few areas of medicine have achieved something similar – organ and joint replacements come to mind, but then issues such as tissue matching, organ rejection and the lifelong drugs to deal with it, post-surgical pain and less than optimal outcomes come to mind and we are reminded of the vastly more complex interplay of biology and psychology embedded in a societal context when dealing with humans. Yet the team work involved in managing someone with chronic pain rarely approaches that involved in a rocket launch.

Perhaps we should replace the phrase “It’s not rocket science!” with “It’s not pain science!”


David Butler




  1. Just two days ago I was telling a client that “Physio is not rocket science” and then added, “but understanding pain can be”. Then today I read this I feel like I’m in the Matrix watching the black cat walk past the doorway. Amazing. I’d like to know the odds of that happening.


  2. Hey Tim,

    Time for a lotto ticket! Makes me wonder if there was some ‘primer’ in the news or other media that both of us might have viewed recently? Sometimes that can explain unusual coincidences.

    ok… what am I thinking………NOW!

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