The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

The Worst Astronaut

  • Published
  • By Maj Reagan Mullin

The average US astronaut today is a citizen with a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM)–related master’s degree. Even to submit their application, they were required to have at least two years of practical experience in their specific field of study or 1,000 hours of jet flight time.1 Approximately 30 percent of them have a doctoral degree, and over half have served in the military. Each member has passed rigorous mental and physical health assessments to ensure they could endure a long-duration space flight. They also beat out thousands of other applicants in interviews and demonstrated the leadership, teamwork, and communication skills necessary to be effective crew members in an austere and dangerous environment.2 Most were selected by NASA in their mid- to late-30s, many had to apply several times before being selected, and all of them trained from two to ten years before they were first launched into space. However, if some poor NASA supervisor were given the unenviable task of rack-and-stacking astronauts, then one of these exceptionally talented humans would don the label “the worst astronaut.”3

In the highly specialized career field of astronautics, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that rack-and-stacking rocket scientists against astronauts is an ineffective method for talent management. I would argue that it should not be applied in any organization that truly cares about developing its people. This is the same sentiment expressed in the recently released document “The Guardian Ideal,” which will serve as the United States Space Force’s (USSF) guidance for talent management across the spectrum of career fields.4

The USSF’s vision laid out in “The Guardian Ideal” is to develop an inclusive culture and team-centric personnel system that encourage cooperation over competition, but it has several significant barriers to overcome. The military officer promotion model is governed by the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) that was created in 1980 to modernize management practices and correct promotion problems following WWII.5 Currently, the Air Force and other military branches employ a rack-and-stack system, pioneered by General Electric's CEO Jack Welch in the 1980s, that ranks peers on a bell curve from high to low performers to determine which to promote based on the DOPMA thresholds.6

While DOPMA was effective at creating stable promotion timelines and uniform promotion rates, it led to high turnover, frequent moves, and shorter military careers even for members with specialty skills critical to the organizations they were being forced to leave. The rigid hierarchical promotion model may have been appropriate for developing leaders to command conscripted and untrained troops in a large-scale ground conflict, but the reality of strategic competition today requires highly specialized professionals that the talent management systems should help develop.7

“The Guardian Ideal” intends for every Guardian to have a strong voice in tailoring development to meet both the service’s needs and his or her personal desires. The proposed system will incorporate work-life balance, resiliency, training, education, and individualized development. Instead of rigidly defined career fields, USSF positions will be codified with prerequisite competencies and experiences to help members identify the USSF’s evolving needs and how they can personally develop to meet them. Competency managers will establish the standards to assess currency requirements and individual competency proficiency levels, and an Enterprise Talent Management Office (ETMO) will continually review and update position information for accuracy and relevancy.8

Accurate position competencies and assessed member competencies will allow for a regulated market approach to job matching that will increase hiring transparency and effectiveness by enabling Guardians to see the job requirements for a desired position and seek developmental opportunities, either internal or external to the USSF, to ensure they are qualified. The talent marketplace approach will provide an enterprise-wide view of the requirements to assist individuals in making developmental and career pathway decisions based on their strengths, interests, and a detailed understanding of what service needs (imagine something like Amazon or Facebook recommendations for the available jobs that you are best suited to perform).9

Official performance assessments will shift the focus from individual-based accomplishments to an individual’s contribution to the team. On average, diverse teams outperform their less diverse counterparts by at least 25 percent, so members will be deliberately placed to bolster diverse, multidisciplinary teams based on each member’s strengths and competencies.10 Individuals will be assessed in terms of contributions to their team and the mission, with team leaders achieving slightly greater recognition based on their supervisory and command responsibilities and expectations.11

Past performance is not indicative of future results in either mutual fund investments or personnel potential assessments due to myriad internal and external factors.12 However, better predictions could be made if past performance was not the principal indicator used to assess future potential. The USSF hopes to replace the annual performance appraisal system with ongoing collection that updates a real-time rolling average to assess promotion readiness based on current performance, situational judgment, and other behavioral components of performance (similar to a 3-year batting average that could still fall within the 6-10 scale used by promotion boards). Limiting the performance data time frame will better indicate significant increases or decreases in performance and incentivize Guardians to take smart risks and learn from mistakes, since failures will not follow them forever.

Supervisors will not assess subordinate competencies as a part of the performance appraisal process because it inherently undermines the accuracy of the developmental feedback (firewall fives for everybody does provide useful feedback to anybody). Member performance will be evaluated against expertly developed value statements by multiple sources that will be aggregated to provide a more holistic view than a single supervisor’s assessment.13 This continual collection model will free supervisors from the administrative burdens inherent in annual appraisal systems and increase the frequency and quality of feedback provided to members.14 In other industries, this type of appraisal has produced superior results and higher workforce satisfaction.15

In inclusive, high-trust, team-centric environments, members typically feel less threatened by the supervisor and are much more likely to seek feedback. To increase the quality of developmental feedback, the USSF has proposed as system that will consolidate 360-degree survey data from supervisors, peers, and subordinates using a standardized web-based system that will be debriefed by a coach. Developmental feedback will focus on strengthening competencies and encouraging growth. Coaching and mentoring programs will be central to sharing perspectives and insights, and reverse mentoring programs will ensure senior leaders gain insights from junior and underrepresented demographics.[xvi]

A blend of current competency assessments, potential-measuring assessments, and behavioral assessments will determine the best fit within the USSF. Instruments that measure potential have the potential to increase diversity, and compatibility assessments will improve job matching. The final and most arduous step to address will be revising the rigid, complex, and slow hiring systems that are a barrier to acquiring and retaining talent.

The talent management systems must allow for internal and external maneuver (flexibility is the key to airpower literally everything).17 The regulations need to be modified to enable smooth and timely transitions between full- and part-time employment and capitalize on the ability to bring members in the service at the appropriate grade for their skill set.18 The USSF specifically lays this out as a requirement for civilian hiring practices, but it would be invaluable if the military regulations were also revised to ease the transition between active duty, Guard, and Reserve with the ability to hire civilian technical specialists into an equivalent military ranks, similar to the way that doctors and lawyers are currently assessed into the military today.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) recognized that the US is “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding.” The Senate Armed Services Committee that helped develop the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) explained in its report that, “when the personnel system becomes out of alignment with the strategy, the system must be revised.”19 To accelerate change and retain the strategic advantage, defense leaders must recruit Americans who are potentially unfamiliar with the military and have aspirations outside of a traditional military career. The NDAA authorizes modifications to the military’s current “up-or-out system” that must be capitalized on to address the emerging threats.20 The services should act quickly to mirror the best practices in civilian industries, such as flexible career paths, incentives for developing technical skills, and career advancement for members with superior technical performance, in addition to promoting leaders with superior command potential.

If “the creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength,” then the personnel systems should be overhauled to maximize talent development.21 The USSF’s talent management vision should not be constrained to the USSF but adopted as a vision for all military branches. Inclusive teams that are mission focused and populated by bold, innovative, and empowered people should be the heartbeat of the Department of Defense. Support from Congress and senior military leaders will be crucial to enable it.22 However, the ultimate success or failure of these initiatives will be based on whether each service member, from the highest potential officer and enlisted member down to the worst astronaut, acknowledges the looming threats to our country’s security and proactively embraces the necessary changes before we all lose.

Maj Reagan Mullin

Maj Reagan Mullin is a colonel assignments officer at Headquarters Air Force (HAF). Previously, he was the chief of officer assignments for the Air Force Special Operation Command A1 Personnel Directorate. Mullin is a special operations MC-130J and PC-12 instructor pilot with 3,000 flying hours supporting numerous contingency operations throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. He holds a bachelor of science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the United States Air Force Academy, a master of arts degree in diplomacy from Norwich University, a master of science degree in systems engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and a master of military operational art and science degree from Air Command and Staff College.



1. NASA, “Astronaut Requirements,”, 4 March 2020,

2. NASA, “Space Is Hard,” YouTube video, 15 October 2019,

3. Brian Shiro, “Interesting Astronaut Statistics,” Astronaut for Hire (blog), 28 March 2008,

4. Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, “CSO Unveils Guardian Ideal, Space Force Values at AFA,” Space Force News, 21 September 2021,

5. Joel Schofer, “What Is DOPMA and Why Should You Care?,” Joel Schofer’s Career Planning Blog, 28 January 2019,

6. Max Nisen, “Why Stack Ranking Is a Terrible Way to Motivate Employees,” Business Insider, 15 November 2013,

7. Blaise Misztal, Jack Rametta, and Mary Farrell, “ Personnel Reform Lives, but Don’t Call It ‘Force of the Future,’” War on the Rocks, 9 August 2018,

8. US Space Force (USSF), The Guardian Ideal, 8,

9. USSF, 14.

10. David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” Harvard Business Review, 4 November 2106,

11. USSF, Guardian Ideal, 7.

12. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Seymour Adler, and Robert B. Kaiser, “What Science Says about Identifying High-Potential Employees,” Harvard Business Review, 3 October 2017,; John Brown, “Past Performance Is not Indicative of Future Results,” Forbes, 29 September 2016,; and Harry Levinson, “Appraisal of What Performance?,” Harvard Business Review, July 1976,

13. USSF, Guardian Ideal, 17–18.

14. USSF, 16.

15. Kenneth H. Blanchard and Garry Ridge. 2009. Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called "Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A" (Upper Saddle River, N.J. : FT Press, 2009)

16. USSF, Guardian Ideal, 15.

17. USSF, 12.

18. USSF, 5.

19. John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, Report 115-262, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (2018), 169,

20. Misztal, Rametta, and Farrell, “ Personnel Reform Lives.”

21. Jim Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, US Department of Defense (2018),

22. USSF, Guardian Ideal.

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