Kathleen Atanasoff is an active-duty Air Force public affairs officer working at Coca-Cola as part of U.S. Air Force Education With Industry. The program enables service members to work in a section of the company commensurate with their military skill sets or career fields. As part of her assignment, Kathleen traveled to United Launch Alliance at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to learn about the space launch company’s mission and communication efforts for a rocket launch.

The opinions shared here are those of the individual and not of the U.S. Air Force or government, nor of The Coca-Cola Company.

When you drink a Coke, you’re probably not thinking about its journey before it hit the shelf or fountain. The same probably goes for your mobile apps, such as navigation, weather and banking.

You purchase. You open. You drink.

You tap. You drive. You’re there. 

Behind what makes your day special – like an ice-cold Coca-Cola – are intricately designed supply chains, research, processes and really smart people. The same goes for many of your favorite mobile apps. Those experts and systems are the reason people in nearly every corner of the world can enjoy a Coca-Cola and be increasingly more connected to one another.

On Feb. 5, I gawked at the horizon as 860,000 pounds of thrust propelled a ULA Atlas V rocket into the sky. The rocket quickly shrank into a speckle of light and disappeared altogether as it ascended into space. The vehicle carried a U.S. Air Force GPSIIF-12 satellite – one of many Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that’s part of the intricately-designed system that help you find your way, among other daily tasks. 

The seamless accessibility of GPS technology is thanks in part to the U.S. Air Force and space launch providers like United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA provides the rocket and ride to space. ULA has launched every operational GPS satellite – about 60 total. The Air Force acquires, maintains and monitors the satellites. Thanks to these professionals, you don’t have to use a map the size of a small blanket for your next road trip. 

Prior to launch, I sat among the engineers, scientists and experts staring at their consoles in the Launch Control Center. They diligently checked and re-checked every electrical connection, temperatures, moisture levels, weather conditions, and so on.

When the rocket finally launched at exactly 8:38 a.m., I whooped and cheered. They were stoic.

No cheers. No handshakes. No dramatic celebration as at the end of the movie “Apollo 13”.

For this team, success is never at lift-off. Congratulations are exchanged only upon “spacecraft separation” or when they deliver their customer’s asset to space on time and without incident. Handshakes commenced exactly three hours and 23 minutes after liftoff when the GPS satellite was released into its orbit.

After soaking up stats about space and satellites, the starkest lesson was actually about human behavior and the people behind the mission. ULA’s culture emphasizes a “one launch at a time” mindset because they know the cost of failure. This Atlas V rocket launched within a week of two deadly space shuttle disaster anniversaries – 30 years for the Challenger and 13 years for the Columbia. Both shuttles were launched by NASA, but some ULA employees witnessed the devastation firsthand and are determined to never let it happen again.

Those incidents reshaped the space industry, driving vigilance and vocal courage when something doesn’t look right. Next year, the stakes will be even higher, as ULA will launch astronauts into space from the U.S. for the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2011. The definition of mission success will no longer just be when the satellite is delivered to its orbit, rather when the astronauts are safe – even if they don’t make it to orbit.

Like the space industry, Coca-Cola has encountered crossroads in its 130-year history that have reshaped the business. Regardless of the challenges, the Company has endured because of focused, talented, driven and really smart people. They are the reason you can find Coke in 200-plus countries around the world.

People make, bottle, market, deliver, stock and sell Coca-Cola.

People launch rockets.

People maintain satellites that help us locate a store to buy a Coke.