Seven Minutes of Terror

High stakes teaming at NASA


Have you looked at this video yet?  If not, I urge you to.  It was assembled by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and it tells the story of what went into planning the landing of Curiosity, the Mars explorer.

In addition to amazing computer animation, it is narrated by a few of the engineers responsible for Curiosity, so you get to meet these people in all their excitement and pride.

The statistics of this mission are staggering.  The spacecraft has covered a distance of 352 million miles over the last eight months.  Curiosity is the size and weight of a compact car, brimming with high tech gear including sensors and laser beams and computers.

One group of people, the Landing Team, has been at work on Curiosity for ten years.  Ten years.  All that time, all that effort, to figure out what needs to happen from the time the ship hits the outermost reaches of the Martian atmosphere until it touches down on Martian soil.

Did I mention that entire sequence lasts seven minutes?

Ten years for seven minutes.  There’s a singular focus if there ever was one.

I realize this is all in the past now.  We know of the magnificent success of the journey and of the landing early Monday morning.  Still, I can’t get over the size of the accomplishment.

And, I can’t stop thinking about the Landing Team.  What must it have required to meld that group of world class experts into a highly functioning team?

While I don’t know for sure, I can hazard a guess as to some of the characteristics that were probably present from the beginning:

  • Clarity of purpose
  • Close connection to the external environment (with regular recalibration)
  • Leadership, rotating as required
  • Commitment to outcomes
  • Respect for one another’s capabilities
  • Adaptability (includes learning)

As with many teams that operate in high stakes environments, much will be written about what happened to enable this one to be so successful.  I look forward to taking part in that conversation.