Learning from Mars

If you went to elementary school circa the 1960s, you remember that one of the few times TV was brought into the classroom—likely a dusty, early model, enormous 21-inch Zenith B&W CRT with bent rabbit ears, strapped to a prison issue, grey steel rolling wheel cart—was for the Apollo lift offs, splash downs, and moon walks. During those turbulent years of hard-won civil rights and compounding economic expansion, you might have dreamed about growing up to be the next Mick Jagger, but it is equally possible you aspired to have The Right Stuff and be the next Neil Armstrong.

The Space Race captured our imaginations. We watched in awe as the first boot imprint and an American flag were planted in the Sea of Tranquility. We lost sleep with the good people at Houston who had “a problem” bringing home Apollo 13. It was all so captivating, the science in our textbooks was made real, technology was cool, and the Warp Factors of Star Trek seemed someday plausible. I’m glad I got to experience that as a child—it made childhood more childlike and less childish. The Little Prince would have been proud.

Much has been written about the fall off in public enthusiasm for the space program after the tapering Apollo missions and the less grandiose but still near miraculous Space Shuttle missions. As we left The Cold War behind with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we came to worry less about controlling our Solar System. Satellites became our path to better television and radio entertainment, not so much a magic portal to the future as a manufactured bridge to enhanced convenience. It all became ordinary, and then expensive, a difficult pair to keep at the high-end of federal funding without public enthusiasm. We moved on, to the information age, to the PC revolution, to the wildly lucrative internet. NASA was scaled back year after year, and although we knew that wasn’t optimal, we were largely okay with it.

Too often we forget all the ancillary learning that occurred as part of space exploration—not just the nifty consumer products like cordless power tools and vastly improved athletic shoes, but the processes of working together in high function teams. Getting tonnage into and out of space safely has never been a job for individual heroes as much as it sets the tone for working together in groups, combining scientific work methods that emphasize cooperation, breaking down gigantic projects into manageable tasks. Engineering is a profession of shared ideas, where the accuracy of each single contribution matters immensely, but the compiled knowledge of all participants matters even more. We take so much of that kind of process for granted now when we bite off big chunks. I wonder if we take appropriate time to digest just what the process of doing the incredible really means.

As we took a brief intermission from the Games of the 30th Olympiad these past few weeks to observe the otherworldly, never before tried jet-softened hard landing on Mars, I was left pondering if perhaps we were being a bit too casual about the successful parachuting of the Curiosity Rover. No, there were no astronauts on board, and yes, we had landed on Mars before—but not this way, and not with a nuclear powered craft of such immense size and scale. I think everything that involves operating with precision at distances of this magnitude is astonishing, and no matter how clear the physics, we should celebrate with the geniuses at JPL and NASA anytime they pull off the near impossible. Getting to Mars and sending back data to Earth is not a little thing no matter how many times we do it.

This one left me thinking even further. In the midst of a floundering economy and awful recession, precisely the opposite of the Apollo climate, our national tech teams did more with less and made us proud. What were the business lessons, I wondered—more ancillary byproducts of this adventure in science—from which we can additionally benefit in learning by example? I am sure there are many, but three leap out for me:

  1. Difficult is Good.  Paraphrasing President Kennedy’s challenge to set an arbitrary deadline without a known roadmap, the Curiosity team chose their path not because it was easy, but because it was hard. This was wide-eyed enthusiasm for a mission about something other than personal gain. Want people to rally around a task? Give them something where they need each other, where failure is acceptable in concept, but not in approach. Big problems are always worth solving.
  2. Resilience is Rebound.  Here was a team that had just put the Shuttle in mothballs, experienced colossal layoffs, and had no choice but to accept for the immediate future that our astronauts would have to hitchhike across the galaxy in the form of renting seats from former competitors. They put this behind them by committing to the project at hand.
  3. Sharing Triumph is Personal.  How do you get a team fired up and motivated? Bypassing cynicism is a decent route. This mission was about proving what was possible, about intrinsic meaning as much as the survival of equipment. The Curiosity team built pride because they did something together they will forever share, advancing progress, continuing exploration. Often you forget the details of a project, but you don’t forget people who matter. This is where emotion has a clear role in that which is otherwise objective.

I hope enough people at home were paying attention, partly because the landing was worthy of our attention, but more because when you think about it in the abstract, there is more application than meets the eye. Getting out of this recession is no small task, and it won’t be our government who gets the job done. It will be teamwork, commitment, creativity, motivation, and entrepreneurial spirit. Our move forward will be economic, but satisfaction has come from more than that. It will be of the human spirit, with celebration in the process of innovation as well as getting some problems solved.

I like that they named the rover Curiosity. It’s a good, real world metaphor. It sings aspiration. It’s worthy of our attention, a form of pedagogy that really does come from another planet.

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2 thoughts on “Learning from Mars

  1. I could not agree more, Ken. This landing was an amazing feat of engineering. It’s science fiction kind of landing that was just made to happen. The next steps will be equally interesting with a car sized rover climbing a mountain.

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    • Thanks for being a reader and commenting here, Len. You know a lot about engineering and bringing complex projects to market. I’m sure the Curiosity team would be glad to know you are impressed and believe in them!

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