Saturday, April 6, 2013

30 Seconds to Mars

I just re-watched the last few seconds of the Curiosity Rover landing. I saw it live the closing night of the Fluid Movement water ballet and I was staying up late relaxing from a good run of shows and having a private after party to watch history.

The landing it's self is a triumph of engineering and went off just as planned. The flight controllers literally could not do anything at the time of landing, with the distance at the time Mars takes 7 minutes each way. To take a reading and act on it is a minimum of 14 minutes. By the time we were watching the lander separate and head to the surface the whole event had taken place and either there was a million dollar wreck to sad scientists and an angry public or the start of a great adventure. In mission control they were there for the ride with the rest of us geeks to see how the story unfolds.

In real time I watched online holding my breath with the landing team not wanting to do anything  to disturb the moment and ruin the mission.  I find professional sports to be boring, but I had the same investment in this as any home town making the playoffs. Nerds! vs The Universe and Fate.

I didn't cheer out loud when they called "Safe" because I didn't want to wake anyone up. I was really wishing to hear at least one lone voice in the neighborhood yelling like I felt. Online my friends were posting short punctuated excited messages with no context the same as if there were a game or a good episode of a tv show. We were a community celebrating victory along with our team.

Watching the last seconds, several times in a row I came to appreciate some small things. Watch Adam Stelzner. He is a (literally) a rockstar. Watch him as a musician does their conductor or front man. As a leader he is there in charge to let his team shine. A few seconds away someone on mic lets out an involuntary excited sound. He lets it air for a beat and gives a little "Eye on the ball, team" sort of direction. Everyone is noticeably holding their breath. He stands up, cues someone by pointing them and then at another. The guy behind him stands up in expectation and pulls his glasses down to better see the answer. Someone in the back pumps his hands in the air victorious but Adam waits for an actual call out with the numbers. This... This is the coolest part. Adam makes quick eye contact, quietly asks a question with his hands (showing a 2 and a 5?) and with the reply in one subtle efficient motion taps the controller next him with a thumbs up to announce Safe on Mars and everyone explodes. He did it with a casual cool letting the moment be about the landing, the team and all the engineers off camera who got them there. And that is good leadership and storytelling right there in a few seconds.

I have an other favorite Stelzner moment from one of the other landings he directed just before the victorious press conference he is toasting his crew and then they swagger across the street to talk to the media. The swagger is my favorite part. You can see the excitement and everyone feeling exceptionally bad ass shine through. They are all exceptionally nerdy looking on the outside, people who seem to spend a lot of time inside their head. You can see at that moment in their posture they are feeling good having just kicked a planet's ass and you should step aside for them. It is an awesome moment.

And the takeaway lesson from this: Do amazing things but also have cool hair. Stelzner's pompadour and the flight director's mohawak with stars shaved into the side made them the media darlings. I am not so secretly hoping that my hair can carry my through life to offset my lack of a formal education.

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