The guys who landed Curiosity

Since the rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August, two of the engineers involved in the project have been getting lots of attention in the press.

Adam Steltzner, who was in charge of the actual landing, has been telling the story of his unorthodox path to accomplishment in the aerospace field.  According to Steltzner, he wasn’t much of a student in high school, so he stopped going.  A few years later he was driving home at night and got to wondering why the stars he could see were in different positions in the sky from how they’d appeared earlier in the evening.  Soon after, he attempted to enroll in an astronomy class at the local community college but found that the class had a physics prerequisite. Steltzner had struggled with basic high school math, so one might imagine that the prerequisite would have ended his quest for an astronomy education.  In fact, it was the beginning of his ascent to tremendous success as a scholar in and as a practical contributor to aerospace engineering.  His alma mater captured the phenomenon this way: “Steltzner quickly experienced the epiphany that has transformed many lives before his: What people resist doing by rote and requirement, they’ll cheerfully embrace through passion and curiosity.”

Steltzner’s colleague Bobak Ferdowsi, the flight director on the Curiosity mission, traveled a less circuitous route to his occupation, but his success as an engineer also seems to have begun as Steltzner’s did, with a fascination with science and space.  He told it this way to WIRED: “I always loved science fiction, I used to love to draw spaceships. Another thing that helped me as a kid was that I played with Legos constantly. I’m sure a lot of kids do, but for me it was not only being creative but being able to build the thing that you’ve imagined. It’s hands-on engineering. We actually use Legos here at work sometimes – more in the early part of the mission – when we’re trying to make a quick 3-D model of something. Legos are one of the reasons I ended up where I am.”

These two would not likely be as successful as they are without the rigorous academic training they’ve received.  But for both of them the prelude to that academic training was critical.  Academics alone was not enough to engage Steltzner.  He needed context and inspiration before it felt worth it to apply himself sufficiently to the study of the field in which he’d go on not only to succeed but to innovate. And from the sound of it, Ferdowsi didn’t struggle as Steltzner did, but he makes it clear that the Legos and the spaceships of his youth were instrumental.  His context and inspiration just came earlier than Steltzner’s did.

The role of the sky and the Legos in Steltzner and Ferdowsi’s accomplishments might seem like grounds for a mandate of stargazing or building.

But these guys aren’t saying “Thank goodness someone made me learn this stuff.” They’re saying “This is what fascinated me. Then I went after it.”

When we start spending our energy and other resources supporting young people in finding their own fascinations – their own versions of the stars or the Legos – rather than only on convincing them how important it is to read and write and calculate early, we’ll end up not only with lots more accomplished and knowledgeable people in every field, but also with more proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians. For so many of us, maybe even most of us, the context makes all the difference.

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One Response

  1. Access over enforcement. A beautiful idea.

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