While my wife Arlene is in the other room watching the Summer Olympic Games in London, I just finished watching NASA TV’s live coverage of the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars. After years of engineering work, then an eight-month flight to Mars, all the hard work came down to a seven-minute landing sequence where the entire team can only watch helplessly as their work either succeeds brilliantly or fails miserably.
The parallels to an Olympic athlete are striking: years of sacrifice and hard work towards a precisely-defined goal, with one final performance when it really counts. If you succeed, a medal is hung around your neck; if you fail, you must find consolation and fulfillment in the journey itself.
The engineers at JPL know all too well the Olympic parallel: I just heard NASA Deputy Administrator Laurie Barber refer to swimmer Michael Phelps as “not the only one to hold his breath the whole time.”
What a fantastic day for JPL, NASA, and planetary science.
Today Adam Frank wrote this excellent piece for NPR.org about how seemingly impossible tasks can be solved, as long as we all work together solve them.
Watching the live stream from JPL was completely engrossing, and the ongoing data we are getting (full color photos! GAH!) is just astounding. David is right…the parallels with Olympic sport are uncanny. One other similarity is the months and years spent in training (development for the scientists) that no one sees or cares about until the event happens. Even then, that training is merely a footnote. We, the general populace, have no idea what that is like. It’s more than just a job; more than a career. It’s truly a lifestyle, something that is completely consuming for the athlete (or scientist). And something I have a hard time really grasping, but I do my best to appreciate the commitment.