Just shy of the finishing mark, the crowd goes absolutely silent. You can hear a pin drop. The coach nervously paces back and forth by the announcer. Faces look anxiously towards the big screen monitor, to see the details – men and women of all ages wait for the result. Then the announcer chimes in as the race is won and the crowd jumps to their feet, cheers, whoops and high-fives. They start hugging one another and tears stream down the faces of even the older men, lifting their glasses and wiping their eyes, celebrating this incredible success.No, it’s not another day at the Olympics. It’s the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory on August 6, 2012 – the ‘Curiosity’ rover. A mission that formally began with NASA’s requests for submissions in April 2004, was literally launched on November 26, 2011 and ended with a delayed (by 14 minutes) broadcast of touchdown telemetry at Jet Propulsion Laboratories was met with unprecedented cheering and shouting from a group of hi-tech rocket science and engineering geeks who had achieved a remarkable feat of design, planning, construction and execution.
You can see the NASA folks witnessing the descent live here: NASA Rover landing video. What an incredible accomplishment and, unlike so many Olympian events, one that involved hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists, engineers, technicians and various support personnel working together so that they can all win the ‘race’ and land this large rover on the surface of a planet some 250,000 kilometres distant (the spacecraft itself had to travel well over 600,000 km).
Satellite installations in the US, Spain and Australia are all part of the telecommunications network receiving telemetry from the Curiosity and the observation satellites orbiting Mars. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite was even able to capture a long distance image of the rover spacecraft, parachute extended, hurtling towards the red planet.
For the moment, for NASA, it probably doesn’t get any better than this. With funding cut back heavily by the Obama government, a win like this is vital for the organisation and scientists around the globe. It took a great deal of ingenuity, dedication, teamwork and undoubtedly persistent leadership in the face of many technical, financial and operational challenges, but they did it.
The expertise required by NASA and its affiliates did not develop overnight. It takes a great deal of forethought, education, institutional involvement, partnerships, development of staff and teams, trials and experimentation, modelling and more.
You may not be working for NASA, but your endeavours may require the same kind of long-term planning, innovation, perseverance and sheer guts to achieve. Have you considered how you need to develop expertise and leadership around you in order to achieve your goals? How can you really achieve something great?
Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to ever identify any of the individuals involved in this project. They won’t be presented with a medal in front of an adoring crowd, broadcast to millions around the world. They won’t even be listed on a giant credits roll as happens in the movies. But they will know. And they’ll be able to tell themselves and anyone else who wants to listen, “I did that!”
Plan meticulously where you can, dream big dreams, work with talented others passionate about achieving those dreams. Together, you could even safely land a robot on another planet!