Why we do science and the triumph of NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ team

Last week we celebrated the team play of the US Women’s National Team, this week we honor NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ team for piloting a spacecraft the size of a small piano through space for 3,463 days and three billion miles.

Remember Pluto? You know, the ninth planet in order from the sun. Is there anyone who did not do a science project on the planets? Very few of us can trace our choice of career back to the grade school science fair, but some folks used those dioramas as a foundation to build a career in space exploration.

Think about what you were doing at work nine years ago. Now imagine you were part of a team that started a journey toward that ninth planet in 2006. And then your planet was demoted to dwarf status. Can you imagine sustaining a team for almost a decade?

Daniel Terdiman examined the success factors in a post for Fast Company.

“Not everyone on the original team stayed on board throughout the 14 years between proposal and today, but many have. Besides Hersman and principal investigator Stern, others who are still deeply involved include Alice Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations manager, Glen Fountain, the New Horizons project manager, Mark Holdridge, the Pluto encounter mission manager, and many other team leads and sub-leads who worked on everything from propulsion to communications.

That’s impressive stability. Of course, all these people have other tasks beyond the New Horizons project, but everyone knew it was about to be show time. “People ramped down so they weren’t working much on the project,” Hersman said, “but when the time comes to fly past Pluto, a lot of other stuff gets put on hold, or they find time.”

Terdiman found that a ‘longevity document’ provided the blueprint for the mission including requirements and contact information for every team member. “One other essential element of preparing for the nine-year mission was compiling a spreadsheet of contingencies for when things went wrong. This was useful when ground control temporarily lost communications with the New Horizons probe on July 4 of this year.” And finally, “When it’s all over, look back.”

If the shear wonder of the team’s achievement was not enough, Adrienne Lafrance, writing for the Atlantic, identified another major milestone for the ‘New Horizons’ team:

“For all the firsts coming out of the New Horizons mission—color footage of Pluto, photos of all five of its moons, and flowing datastreams about Pluto’s composition and atmosphere—there’s one milestone worth noting on Earth: This may be the mission with the most women in NASA history.”

“The New Horizons team includes about 200 people today, but there have been thousands of scientists and engineers who have contributed to the mission since it began more than a decade ago. Women make up about one-quarter of the flyby team, those responsible for the high-stakes mission taking place this month, according to NASA.”

And now, for you skeptics who either believe all of this is happening on a sound stage in Burbank or just don’t get why we do science and stretch the limits of our knowledge, I turn to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In an interview with Lester Holt for NBC Nightly News on Tuesday, the American astrophysicist and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium answered the question of why we do science.

“One of the greatest aspects of what it is to do science is to reach a new vista and then discover that you can now ask questions undreamt of before you got there.”

Tonight, go outside and look up. What do you see? What questions do you have? Imagine being part of a team working to find the answers to those ‘undreamt of’ questions from our new vantage point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s