Nov 2013

Gather Ye Data While Ye May


For those that don’t know me (or follow me on Facebook/Twitter), I’m a huge Chicago sports fan. So I’ve been ruminating all morning about the latest news out of Chicago – that Derrick Rose injured his knee last night. Today, we’re all awaiting the news on how serious the injury is. It’s hard to put into words how devastating an injury would be. Rose is a Chicago native, who the city took tremendous pride in as a high school player, and that is now one of the best, most dynamic players in the league, and a centerpiece to one of the few teams that has a shot at unseating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But even that description doesn’t do his importance justice. I was trying to explain all this to a colleague, and the following analogy hit me:

It’s like when a mission you’re involved in gets a potentially debilitating technical glitch.

I’ve blown out my own knees three times, and so I understand the physical pain Rose went through last night. Granted, my livelihood and life’s passion wasn’t at stake. So the emotional trauma wasn’t there during my injuries to the same extent is must be for Rose right now.

But that emotional trauma is exactly why I think this is a good analogy for what my colleagues feel when a mission is on the fritz. By the time a mission actually launches, many members of the team will have dedicated huge portions of lives and careers, both of which are much longer than Rose’s has been to this point. And livelihoods are at stake, as well. The money NASA and other space agencies spend on missions doesn’t all go into buying metal. That money mostly goes into paying the people that bend that metal into something useful, as well as the people operate the mission and interpret its data. So when a mission stops working, many of them need to find new work… or else they stop working, too. And even those whose jobs are secure are left scrambling to find new projects to work on, which they may not be nearly as emotionally invested in.

That investment – in emotion and in capital – is really the centerpiece to the analogy. Space enthusiasts become as invested in our missions as sports fans do in our favorite teams and athletes. That makes it incredibly nerve wracking when there’s uncertainty to the status of the centerpiece to all the things you have invested so much emotional capital.

So what lessons can we take from this? For that, I turn to another huge influence from my childhood and adolescence, Dead Poets Society. In it, English teacher John Keating turns to a Robert Herrick poem when trying to teach the lads in his class about the fleeting nature of life:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
by Robert Herrick

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

In other words, “Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!”

We don’t know when life will change suddenly – and dramatically. And those changes can take the veil off the illusion of the permanence of our health and the things we have built. These changes can turn long-term plans into folly, and leave emotional devastation in their wake. That doesn’t mean we should despair, or lose hope and stop planning for the long term. But it *does* mean we should be more appreciative of all the smaller wonders we are treated with on the way there. From a mission-planning standpoint, it also means putting as many of your high-priority observations as you can at the front end of the mission… because you never know if you’ll see the back end of it.

So to my fellow sports fans, keep your eye on that title. But enjoy the treasures of the regular season and the spectacular moments it brings.

To my colleagues on the Curiosity mission, keep your eye on Mount Sharp. But realize that every sol is a soliday. Keep making amazing discoveries, and enjoy the spectacular view on your hike through the foothills.

And to my colleagues on the Kepler mission, which recently lost much of its capacity before it could hit the jackpot of an “Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star”… realize the myriad wonders uncovered before those reaction wheels failed. And get ready for the next set of discoveries, whether they be more exoplanets (K2) or a hunt for near-Earth asteroids, or some other wonder.

Or, to paraphrase Herrick:

Gather ye data while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same mission that flies today
Tomorrow will be dying.

S. Domagal-Goldman Posted by
S. Domagal-Goldman
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