Dare Mighty Things: Mars Curiosity Lander

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[Editor's Note: Ellen Snortland was present with the media in the Jet Propulsion Lab to watch the Mars Science Laboratory AKA Curiosity land on Mars. We asked her to share her thoughts about the event. -Virginia ]

Sisters in the Stars

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things;
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

— Amelia Earhart

Curosity Heat Shield
Curiosity's Heat Shield in View via NASA

This year, aviation explorers finally have evidence that may lead to Amelia Earhart’s wreckage in a search that has gone on since she disappeared in 1937. She had never given her plane a name, although she unofficially dubbed it “The Flying Laboratory.” As I sat with other media reps this past Sunday, August 5, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus, waiting for the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory which does have a name — Curiosity — I couldn’t help reflecting on how so many women who are explorers, trail-blazers and dreamers stand on Earhart’s shoulders… er, wings. Certainly the multitude of women who were key to the miraculous, yet mathematically pure, wheels-down landing of Curiosity have Amelia Earhart-level courage.

Perhaps the young Ms. Earhart stood daydreaming in the dusty fields of a Kansas farm, soaking in the sun and the smell of clover, as a new-fangled airplane flew overhead in the vivid blue Kansas sky. “I will do that some day,” she said to herself. But without her courage and tenacity, her dreams would have died.

The motto for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is “Dare Mighty Things.” We need to hijack that motto for ourselves and our girls. (Boys too!) We owe it to ourselves and them to squash the little voice in our head that says “you can’t do it,” and instead say, “Oh, yeah? Watch this!” While fear is contagious, so is courage. I invite everyone who reads this to start spreading boldness and audacity. I double-dog DARE you to do the mighty things you dream. Show your boldness to the young people around you.

So many of the women involved with Curiosity are infectious and engaging; they are people you want to be around. Dr. Laurie Leshin, Dean of the School of Science at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been involved with Curiosity for the past 6 years. Dr. Leshin nailed her values about life and Mars in a recent op-ed piece she wrote for the Albany Times Union:

“In a way, this is full circle for me. I remember the amazement I felt when, as a 10-year old girl in my mother's kitchen, I saw the first photos of Mars taken by the 1976 Viking lander in Time magazine.

That moment has never left me, and it's certainly one of my earliest memories of being riveted by and drawn to scientific discovery.

I know I'm not alone in having had a moment like this, and in the background of every scientist or engineer who has served on this mission, there is the hope that something we find will inspire a school kid, maybe a child in your own hometown, to learn more about rocks and rockets, and follow in our footsteps; the hope that this moment of inspiration will serve as a motivation for the hard work of learning science, technology, engineering, or math — the so-called STEM fields.”

Just think, if Leshin’s mother had scoffed, “Forget Mars; stick to this planet. And math is hard. Do something else!” and Leshin listened to so-called “conventional wisdom,” we would not have benefited from her leadership in the STEM fields. Earhart’s journey led from a Kansas field to the reality of trans-Atlantic flight; Leshin’s from a magazine article to the Dean of a major STEM institution — RPI — and later, key involvement in landing Curiosity in the name of exploration. Wow.

It really is true: if you can imagine it, you can do it. If you encourage, little ones will respond.

The women of the MSL project all have stories and backgrounds that required stupendous levels of commitment, hard work and yes, DARING BIG THINGS. Whether it was escaping the regime change in Burma, as Dr. Mimi Aung did; or Dr. Nagin Cox ignoring rigid gender rules in her culture that — to put it mildly — frowned upon female ambition beyond a good dowry; to even dealing with ho-hum, daily workplace sexism like, “honey, get me some coffee,” the women of MSL had to often conduct their own “personal space” program, boldly exploring new territory where no females in their families or societies had gone before. Happily, the “muscles” they had to develop to transcend low expectations of their gender gave them the strength to tackle real interplanetary space!

Mars, Baby!

Dr. Mimi Aung, the manager of Guidance & Control who designed its autonomous descent and landing mechanism, had a great analogy for the virtually impossible task of landing Curiosity at a certain spot next to Gale Crater. She said, “Landing it is akin to throwing a football from Miami’s Sun Life Stadium (home of the Dolphins) to the Pasadena Rose Bowl … and have it not just hit the Rose Bowl, but a frisbee on the 50 yard line!” A further analogy: “the previous rovers, Spirit & Opportunity, were like landing a large skateboard, while the Curiosity is a Mini-Cooper!”

Here are some additional bright lights of courage and brilliance:

 • Pauline Hwang, Deputy Integrated Planning & Execution Team Chief

• Erisa Hines, Attitude Control System Engineer

• Ann Devereaux, EDL Flight System Engineer

• Kelly Clarke, Deputy Realtime Operations Team Chief/GDS Engineer

• Leslie Livesay, Director for the Engineering and Science Directorate

… and to whomever else I’m missing.

Finally, take a moment to reflect not only on the journey from Amelia Earhart to Mars, but also the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, who passed away just two weeks before the Mars landing. She most assuredly had wings of courage. May she and Amelia ride the stars in peace forever.

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