What biz leaders can learn from astronauts

June 29, 2012, 4:59 PM UTC

FORTUNE — The corner office can be a high-pressure environment, but imagine calling the shots in a cramped shuttle in orbit 100 kilometers above the planet.

Jeffrey Ashby made some split-second decisions while space-sick and weightless. He was commander of the shuttle Atlantis on its 2002 mission to bring equipment to the International Space Station. He made the tough choice to manually dock Atlantis to the Space Station, bucking protocol, when he feared the mission might fail.

Yet he felt confident, he says, because of the chemistry he built with his team during the nine months prior to launch. Ashby insisted that his group complete a grueling outdoor course with National Outdoor Leadership School in southeastern Utah’s desolate canyon country.

Ashby’s resume reads like the dreams of a third-grader: he flew jets in the Navy and commanded a squadron of fighter pilots before he became an astronaut. He’s seen our planet from space three times. For now, the career of 58-year-old Ashby has taken a more terrestrial turn. Ashby is the Chief of Mission Assurance for Blue Origin, a company that aims to make commercial space flight affordable.

Ashby talked to Fortune about leadership in the Final Frontier at a recent conference at the Wharton School.

Fortune: You don’t seem to be afraid of leading in life-threatening situations. So, what scares you?

Jeffrey Ashby: A lot of people ask if I’m afraid during a launch. My stock answer is, not of dying, because you’ve sort of accepted your destiny at that point, but I am afraid of making a mistake that will either cost lives or cost the mission. Alan Shepard started a tradition where, on the way up to the launch pad, the astronauts recite the astronaut prayer, which is, “Please God, don’t let us screw this up.”

That is a very team-oriented philosophy to apply in a scary situation.

Oh. I mean, if you put yourself above the cause and your team, you will eventually fail. I see leaders who are screamers, who lead by fear, and that’s all ego-driven. You have to be selfless to be a truly great leader. That kind of leader, people will follow, and even if they don’t agree with decisions, they’ll disagree and commit.

Don’t the problems that business leaders face from the safety of their offices seem relatively minor?

No. We all have different sets of talents. I happen to be pretty good at flying off of aircraft carriers and, I like to think, flying shuttles.

Those are inherently more badass than most talents.

Well, they certainly look badass on paper, but you know, I look at my resume, and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but also recognize that there’s a lot of things that I’m not the best person to do. Leaders need to recognize where their strengths and weaknesses are, and where the weaknesses are, they really want active followers to step up and help cover them.

For example, Pam [Melroy] and I were co-leaders one day in the canyons. I got dehydrated. I looked at her, and I said, ‘Pam, I feel really bad. You need to be the leader until I can regroup.’ Of course, Pam didn’t bat an eye. That was a very powerful lesson for me. For a man especially, for a fighter pilot more so. But what a great lesson, to swallow my pride and see how well it comes out, and go, ‘Man, maybe I should do that more often.’

You’ve spoken about how Melroy helped in the crucial decision aboard the Atlantis to manually dock the spaceship at the International Space Station. How did your crew work together?

They key was that she knew me and could tell that I was vacillating. The obvious choice was to do what we were trained to do. She knew it was my decision, and so did every person on that crew. They all fed me information to let me know a) we had enough capability on the crew to pull off a manual rendezvous and b) that it was okay with them. I mean, that is powerful. And it came from a team that had been built only nine months before.

Will you fly again?

I will, but in a new private space vehicle. I’m telling everyone that I’m number one to fly at the little company I work at, and I won’t go unless I think it’s safe. I’m there to represent the safety of the human beings, so no one else should fly until I do.

Why does space travel matter to humankind?

I think, and this is my personal belief now, that space is written in our DNA as a survival mechanism. It can ignite passion in us when properly incited. I think that we see that passion ebb and flow in society and individuals as they go through their lives and they have other priorities.

Will I go to space?

I would say with near certainty, yes. You’ll fly some day. What you should strive for — because the suborbital thing is easy for you, right? — is an orbital flight.  First of all, you’re two to three times as high. You’re going to sit there and cross over lines of thunderstorms and the lights of cities and plumes of the Amazon flowing into the ocean. You’ll see the Rocky Mountains as a series of tiny little bumps on the surface of the earth. And you’ll see the great forests as little strips of green. You’ll look at the atmosphere, this thin little band, and you’ll say, ‘all of human kind lives in that little band?’ And you’ll think. Wow. First, we better take care of that little band, and second of all, we better have an out. You will be astounded at the fragility of humankind. Life is clinging to the surface of this earth like a little plant would cling to a cliff side in a tiny bit of dirt.

Maybe if we sent our CEOs into orbit, they would put everything in perspective and stop making ego-driven mistakes.

(Laughs) I doubt it.