Embracing the Future

My Op-Ed piece on the Mars Polar Lander ran in the Pasadena Star-News on 2000/01/20.
I was one of the NAG (Navigation Advisory Group) folks providing advice and help to the Mars Polar Lander Navigation Team after the crash of the Mars Climate Observer a few months earlier. We were chagrined to learn that the entry target region at Mars was incredibly small, and maybe not even attainable by the Navigation Team. Promises had been made which should not have been made. Unless the team was beefed up and new methods were implemented, the second failure in a row at Mars was itching to happen. After a lot of effort and worry, the day of the landing arrived. The Navigators and NAGs rejoiced because we had delivered the spacecraft to where it should be. Alas, the Navigation was right but the landing software was wrong …

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Mars: NASA / Foter /

Dearly beloved, we gather to celebrate an arrival, not mourn a departure. Let us give thanks for the future and bury the past.

Conversation dies and silence gathers as the minutes tick-tick-tick toward 12:39 in the afternoon of a Southern California day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m jammed cheek-by-jowl with fifty other people in a narrow hallway running half around a glass-enclosed operations room. Another thirty people wedge into that small room. Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator, is there — a gray eminence watching quietly and lethally. There’s Richard Cook, Project Manager, and bird-like Ed Stone, JPL Director. There’s John McNamee, Project Developer, looking intensely haunted and somber. Where are we? Where are we going?

“Take more risks,” Goldin said. “Don’t be afraid of failure,” he pronounced at the dawn of Faster, Better, Cheaper. More recently he added a stern codicil: “But don’t fail.”

We’ve been at risk for eleven months since our dearly departed little brother, Mars Polar Lander, became irretrievable at launch. Today, December 3rd, 1999, a cloud of uncertainty begins to precipitate into reality as we listen for the first available peep from little brother. We won’t know for several minutes yet, thirteen, twelve, eleven …

You have to roll dice in the space biz, there’s no getting around it. Everyone in that room and hallway has something on the line. For the mission engineers and scientists it’s a few years of their lives and careers. For others like myself—one of the navigators trying to figure out where we are going—only a few weeks of commitment are at stake. Only a few weeks? Wrong! It has been an agony of weekends, long nights and Thanksgiving holidays sacrificed to the demanding God of Exploration.

The God of Exploration! He has been benevolent to Viking and Voyager and Galileo and Pathfinder—and He has been cruel to Mars Observer and Mars Climate Observer. You have to sacrifice time, money, talent and ingenuity; he doesn’t provide safe passage to Mars for peanuts, you have to bleed and sacrifice a virgin or two.

… eight, seven, six …

Where are we and where are we going? All conversation ceases! All eyes lock onto the display of the spectrum analyzer. A green fuzzy-flat line lies horizontally across the range of radio frequencies expected from our departed kin.

… three, two, one …

Collective intake of breath. In moments we will shout joyfully to see a tiny needle-sharp peak of signal rise from that fuzzy-flat line to tell us that our dearly departed is dearly arrived, yet …

Yet now the possibility of failure congeals. Until NOW it was abstract and empty—was simply the dark underside of a probability cloud drifting far away.

Now! A nugget of information has propagated over fourteen minutes of light-travel-time from Mars to Earth, to the Deep Space Network, to this control room, to this display, to these eyes. Now. The probability cloud roils overhead, leaden black underbelly churning malevolently. A lightning stroke, abrupt and powerful, strikes nearby. Reality arrives.

The flat line remains flat-line. The nugget of information is the null bit, the absence of a needle-sharp peak, the lack of signal where signal is wanted.

Wait! Maybe the timing is off, maybe the receivers need tweaking, maybe the antenna is mis-pointed, maybe …

Silence. A downpour of cold wet reality begins, soaking the mind, depressing the soul. Dan Goldin’s face darkens; Ed Stone stares at the spectrum display. John McNamee gazes into space.

… five, six, seven …

Speculation begins in whispers. Maybe it’s in safing mode, maybe earth is temporarily out of sight, maybe …

There are a hundred possibilities. Over the next few days I will watch Richard Cook’s face filling TV screens, always optimistic, upbeat. There’s always one more thing to try—but I feel in my heart from that first moment, as do most of us assembled here, dearly beloved, that the roll of the dice has come up snake eyes. Our dearly departed has truly departed, smeared all over the landscape, or perhaps rolled into a ball at the foot of a steep slope, or perhaps …

There are many possibilities but only one actuality, which we may learn when the first human explorers eventually reach the forbidding southern climes of Mars. Meanwhile, we deal with failure—with breast-beating, investigation boards, program restructuring, launch cancellations …

And growth, and lessons learned, and a chance to do it better, because we WILL do it better, again and again, because we melt in the crucible of failure and mold to something better, but more fundamentally because we, as human beings, worship the God of Exploration and will sacrifice for the future.

Dearly beloved, give thanks for the future and bury the past. Where are we and where are we going? To Mars and beyond.

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