Hold on to the doubt.
Embrace the mundane.
In this case, it all really is, honestly, rocket science.
Most of us who count ourselves among the ranks of “Space Geeks” knew the public story of the amazing 2012 landing on Mars of a 900 kg, Mini-Cooper sized rover, via what seemed like an absolutely insane “Sky Crane” rocket engine and cable reel contraption. Until now, I hadn’t been aware of the decade of struggles that led JPL and NASA to that amazing landing.
I’ve just finished reading The Right Kind of Crazy; A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership and High-Stakes Innovation by Adam Steltzner, with William Patrick. Steltzner, of course, is the JPL Engineer who managed and led the EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) effort for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – more popularly known as Curiosity. In The Right Kind of Crazy, he not only tells the story of the development of the mission itself, but also provides a terrific insight in to some of the inner workings at JPL in Pasadena and that of his own personal and professional development.
As an Engineer who self-admits that he’s arrogant, brash and intense, Steltzner tells a story of his winding and largely nontraditional path that led to the landing of his first job at JPL and then focuses on what he’s learned over the years about leading teams of people. He frames this story, to an extent, as a treatise on leadership in general, and the book is currently being touted by some as the next “must read” management training book. Sure, it can be read that way, and in fact, Steltzner injects commentary about business leadership in to the text here and there, and there is much to be learned in that realm from this book, but I took away much more than just the next iteration of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.
Steltzner writes not only about how to manage and lead, but also exposes his own personal faults and, some would say even, demons. At several points along his journey, he clearly points out where “X” and “Y” happened because, essentially, “… I screwed the pooch.” For a person self proclaimed as arrogant and abrasive, that’s a remarkable thing to say – and he says it more than once in this volume. I find it amazingly refreshing to find an author of this kind of text who’s willing to lay it out there, warts and all, and spin a tale of perseverance and ultimate victory around those moments.
So, the Steltnzer big three:
Be Curious – always. As he says, we’re all born this way, but so many lose this simple gift somewhere along our path.
Hold on to the doubt – don’t rush to the instant answer out of fear of leaving a vacuum unfilled. So many decisions to scary, open questions can be made so much better by holding on to that doubt. Is this really the best and final answer? Is there something better, more complete, better engineered, more confidence inspiring?
Embrace the mundane – really. Steltzner tells of a very scary moment in the development of MSL when, a mere six months from launch date, running an EDL simulation at Kennedy Space Center with the actual spacecraft, the team created a simulated 200 MPH smoking crater in the simulated Martian surface because the landing radar wouldn’t lock on to the signals it was getting. What went wrong? Was it the big sexy, complex software package that was responsible for automating the landing? Nope. In the end it turned out to be simple, mundane simulation hardware in the test environment that wasn’t even part of the spacecraft. By not embracing and respecting the mundane, by making the terrible assumption that the “simple” stuff should just work, the team caused themselves a larger amount of undue work, lost time, heartache, stress and wasted money chasing ghost problems.
The title of the book? Well, a while after the MSL team developed this outlandish idea to land the rover in this way, the head of NASA, pretty much for the first time ever, summoned a JPL lead Engineer (Steltzner) to NASA HQ in Washington DC to explain “… how this crazy idea is supposed to work.” At the end of the meeting, while still highly doutbful, but trusting in his JPL mavericks, the NASA chief essentially said, “well l still think it’s a completely crazy idea, but it might be the right kind of crazy to get the job done.” And with that, MSL’s EDL scheme has the stamp of approval form the top guy himself.
The Right Kind of Crazy is a small epic of a tale that spans not only decades and multiple JPL and NASA missions, but also the millions of miles spanning our solar system. It’s a story of success tempered by failure, defeats softened by small wins and ultimately the triumph of human energy, spirit and curiosity.