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Robots on Mars. Pride. Anguish.

6 August 2012

Last night, scientists and engineers from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory landed a rover on Mars, in one of the most daring and intrepid extra-terrestrial excursions ever attempted. It’s the size of a small car. It’s powered with a thermocouple that generates voltage based on the heat generated by a dollop of plutonium. It is a mobile chemistry lab, there to search for organic compounds, which will hopefully reveal that there was yet another crucial building block of life on Mars, to go along with liquid and energy.

After being flung from earth on a rocket, sailing in a widening helix against the gravitational pull of the sun for eight months, travelling hundreds of millions of miles, it successfully negotiated a landing so implausibly engineered as to make Rube Goldberg blush. A parachute. A retro-rocket. A hovering sky-crane. All autonomously. No interaction with any human controllers.

This is engineering. This is the soul and the face of what I was taught to do. As a systems engineer, I was trained to do exactly what these incredible people did. As a graduate student, I studied optimal control. Manifolds. Coordinate transformations. Quotient spaces of vector spaces. All the mystifying and alien mathematics required to do exactly what was done to land Curiosity on the Red Planet.

I wasn’t very good at it. I was good enough to get by of course. But I wasn’t great. The reason? It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart enough. It was that I wasn’t dedicated enough. In 2003, 2004, when I was learning that mathematics (nonlinear dynamic systems), I was drinking too. Generally at least two bottles of wine a day, or maybe three-quarters of a bottle of bourbon. I studied, but it was too hard for me to truly grasp it and to drink as much as I wanted to at the same time. And drinking came first. For the alcoholic, drinking always comes first.

As I watched the NASA scientists erupt and celebrate, and surge from their chairs, I couldn’t help thinking: I could have been there. I could have done these things. I was trained for this. And I was caught in a terrible sadness that welled up with the pride. But of course, the truth is, I had already decided to work in medicine. I was never terribly interested in space explorations. And even if I had been, the competition to work at places like JPL is such that even if I’d never been a drunk, and worked and thrown myself into it, there are still a lot of people both smarter and better than me.

I like my life. I like working in health care. I’m happy with what I am and where I’ve gotten. I don’t regret that I’m an alcoholic; I’ve learned so much I’d have had no other way to learn. I’ve become a participant in life in a way I never would have known how to be otherwise.

But oh, for a moment, the terrific anguish, as I looked at those magnificent men and women in their moment of triumph, as great engineers once again expanded the sense of what it means to be human. How I longed to be among them. This is why I became an engineer. To build the things that change the world, that change all the worlds. The things that change humanity. Roll on, wheels of Curiosity.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 113 days permalink
    6 August 2012 23:11

    To expand the sense of what it means to be human. To change the world (by interacting positively with the part of it you touch). These are things I see you doing all the time. There’s no way to know how large the pond is, or how far the ripples will spread.

  2. furtheron permalink
    7 August 2012 07:53

    I was so impressed as well. I’ve met some of the guys that worked on Beagle the European one that died on landing a few years back. These guys are so clever and that is all so difficult to do.

    It inspires people, especially the young and not yet too cynical, like my son who would love to work on stuff like this. He has the brains and interest I hope he succeeds. Sadly at the age he is now I was already a “functioning drunk”

  3. Lisa permalink
    7 August 2012 17:38

    “Terrific anguish” over things I didn’t want in the first place – very familiar.

  4. 9 August 2012 10:16

    It is an amazing feat. But the funding issues will continue even for those individuals. And they do it for the love of what they do. So many people don’t understand that.

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