One of the rock stars of American science offered Lincoln Chamber of Commerce members some practical advice Wednesday about achieving the unlikely and improbable in their business pursuits.
John Grotzinger, a CalTech geologist in his day job, is the chief scientist and head of strategic science planning for NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover mission to Mars. He was the keynote speaker at the chamber's annual luncheon.
"Why are we doing this?" he asked rhetorically as he began his presentation on landing a vehicle on a moving target 250 million miles away.
Not because it's easy, as Mayor Chris Beutler reminded the crowd earlier, but because it's hard, as John F. Kennedy said when he promised to land Americans on the moon.
Because the big, bold challenges make the expense and effort worth it, Grotzinger told the crowd. Because there are lots of technology spinoffs created when a bunch of engineers gather around a box of parts. Because riveting images of a motor vehicle on another planet bring kids to math and science.
Because people still wonder if we're alone in this universe.
"Dare Mighty Things," one of Grotzinger's projected slides told the crowd.
"The most important thing is you have to think big," he said. That forces the development of new technology.
And there are rules to follow, he said, that apply to any enterprise, such as those pursued by a business audience of hundreds.
Fly as you test and test as you fly. There is zero tolerance for error in a mission such as Curiosity's. The nearest mechanic is 250 million miles away.
"So if you first fail, don't try again," Grotzinger said. "Find out what went wrong."
In 2008, the Curiosity engineers discovered a design error in the motors that would have been fatal.
"Admit your mistakes," he said.
Great work and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset.
"Nine out of ten times, they're crazy," Grotzinger said. "We got hammered all the time about what we were trying to do."
Specifically, the manner of landing the four-wheeled Curiosity on Mars drew its share of doubt. After traveling 250 million miles, the spacecraft was supposed to drop its heat shield and allow a supersonic parachute to slow down the craft. Then a rocket powered "skycrane" clutching the vehicle emerged from the craft shell, slowly lowered the vehicle toward and to the Martian surface on bungee-like cords, then fired itself off and out of the way.
The public's interest in a video of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during that "Seven Minutes of Terror" when the craft landed in 2012 crashed Google's server.
"When we landed we created a priceless national asset," Grotzinger said. "We don't know if we can do it again."
But it caught the public's attention in a way that no space mission has since the Apollo landings on the moon. And Curiosity continues to send back information every day as it toddles toward Mount Sharp, a 6-kilometer mountain in the middle of the crater the vehicle landed in.
"Gen X just jumped on this thing," Grotzinger said.
Planning is everything, he said, but don't be a fanatic about it.
Curiosity's wheels are getting beaten up by the sharp Martian rocks. So the team looked at new routes over softer ground, preferably sand. They found a new route and took it. Grotzinger showed the crowd pictures of its trail taken Wednesday morning.
"We've discovered driving backward is better than going forward," he said. "This mission selects for people who think things through."
Grotzinger received NASA's prestigious Outstanding Public Leadership Medal for the success of the mission. So far. In the next decade, they want to bring rocks back to earth from Mars.
"Grand challenges keep your team engaged," Grotzinger said.