Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dreams and my Date with Destiny

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Amongst us planetary scientists, the answer is almost always: "An Astronaut." I can certainly understand the appeal. Who wouldn't want to explore an alien place and do it in the style with which we associate Buck Rogers, Captain Kirk or any of our other intrepid science fiction heroes?

But that doesn't quite capture what I imagined at that age. Let me explain what I mean by that statement by using an example. When I was much, much younger, my parents allowed me to stay up for one show alone - NOVA on PBS. It was a real treat because the show came on at 9:30 PM in Newfoundland which is pretty late for an eight year old. For those of you who know the show, there's quite a variety of topics that end up getting covered from medicine to military technology and everything in between. 

However, I did have a favourite episode. I just couldn't get enough of the results that came back from the Voyager probes. That story had everything: cutting edge tech, an audacious plan with dramatic twists and turns, and wonders revealed that felt so much more satisfying than anything from SciFi because they were actually real. Central to the whole process was the mission controller and that holy of holies for me, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yes, I was one of those eight year olds who dreamed of one day being part of JPL.

As with all dreams, as I grew up the vividness faded in the light of real life and I set aside such juvenile foolishness for a more practical course. But like all dreams they may become tattered around the edges, creased with age, crammed in dark corners or under the seat cushions, but they never entirely die and they don't go away. When I began to find my course of study was missing something I tried a radical change and went back to basics, switching over to Planetary Science on a hunch. The rest is history and within a year I got my wish: in 2004 I spent two weeks at JPL working on Spirit on assignment from my advisor, Peter Smith.

I was hooked and I couldn't get enough. With each new assignment from Peter, my confidence, abilities and wonder grew. Next was the Huygens probe to Titan's Surface: an exotic location I was amongst the first dozen human beings in history to witness. Then came Phoenix. Initially my involvement was peripheral (again, my head had won out over my heart as I closed in on the end of my PhD) but with Peter's encouragement I went all in. I became a Science Planner/Integrator and discovered a state of satisfaction with my work that I have never experienced before or since. I am lucky to have found such purpose; I know many others never do even after a lifetime of searching.

Unfortunately, the higher you are, the further you have to fall. With the recession, my first postdoc fell through and I ended up being forced out of planetary science all together. Ever so slowly, over the past three years I've been clawing my way back. But the experience left some scars. Cognitive dissonance made me come to terms with the strong possibility that I might never work another mission again. 

But then serendipity worked its magic once more and I was in just the right place at the right time to make a submission to the Mars Science Laboratory Participating Scientists Program. Of such chance opportunities seized is a life made. As of yesterday, I've been informed that my proposal has been selected. What makes this especially sweet is that it is work almost entirely of my own design which has been recognized by my peers.

And so here I am… sitting on a plane, 40,000 feet above the Appalachian mountains on my way to Florida and that place that all us planetary scientists know simply as "the Cape." In my business, the Cape is where dreams come true or shatter into a million pieces; it is a place of legend. I certainly intend to be hoping and praying with everything I've got that we get a successful launch. MSL is now, in a small sense, my ride and with it go my own hopes and aspirations. That changes the entire character of my trip down here into something more subtle and yet profound.

Appropriate then that the launch was rescheduled for Saturday morning... it has become an interlude to a tradition as old as television for millions of kids. Will the networks cut away from the cartoons for just a minute so that the kids will get a peek? If they do, I've got to believe that for at least a few, they will look at that rocket heading skyward and dream about the day that they too will be a small part of solar system exploration. As I once did.

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