Thursday, April 30, 2009

Extraordinary Accomplishments

The NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama is testimony to the fact that when a lot of really bright people come together to focus on a challenge, they can do extraordinary things. For example:

  • The F-1 rocket engine puts out 1.5 million pounds of thrust. That’s a fair bit of power. When NASA took possession of the F-1 in the 1950’s, it was the most powerful engine ever developed, and at the time, nobody had built a vehicle you could bolt it to. Eventually, somebody at NASA built such a vehicle. And I’m sure there was no small amount of pride when some smart guy at NASA rang up the nice folks at Rocketdyne to say: “I’ll be needing 5 of those F-1s – at a time.”

  • Somebody figured out a way to safely produce 7.5 million pounds of thrust for 2 minutes 30 seconds (getting all of 14,000 gallons to the mile!), and do so as the first stage of three to escape the Earth’s gravity.

  • Once in space, somebody figured out that the Service Module could separate, turn around, and dock with the Lunar Excursion Module, back it out, and then turn around again toward the moon – all while travelling at 17,000 miles per hour.

  • Of course, a lot of people had worked out all kinds of little things, like the barbecue roll to keep the spacecraft from overheating, the thousands of component parts necessary to create a sustainable personal atmosphere (a space suit), not to mention a collapsible battery operated lunar rover.

For the people involved in a project like this, it’s probably all in a day’s work. From the outside looking in, it’s stunning.

You really begin to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of everything that goes into space exploration when you try to explain just a few of these things to a 6 year old child.

Perhaps nothing captures it better than the comparison of two rockets. In one part of the museum, there’s a display of Dr. Robert Goddard’s first rocket, which went only about 41 feet into the sky. That’s not all that high, and in fact at the time he launched his rocket there were fireworks that could go far higher. But Dr. Goddard realized that his experiment was a success. If he had a more fuel, more thrust, and a more stable combustion chamber, he reckoned he could build a rocket that would break free of the Earth.

In Huntsville, you can pretty easily go from looking at a replica of Dr. Goddard’s rocket to looking at the Saturn V rocket. More fuel. More thrust. More stable combustion container. At 363 feet, it stands taller than Dr. Goddard’s first rocket flew into the sky. And it made it all the way to the moon, many times. Dream realized.

But the important lesson to teach a child in this isn’t just that “all the cool kids go to space camp.” It's that when really bright people are given the opportunity to concentrate their efforts, they’re able to do extraordinary things. Like make it possible to travel in space.

While not all of us grow up to be rocket scientists, we can each of us move the needle on our profession or our pastimes in our own modest ways. But it’s up to us to make that possible. We can’t hold other people (e.g., employers or family members) responsible for creating that environment for us. We enable ourselves.

We stand a far better chance of reaching our potential if we’re free of constraints, distractions, and self-inflicted limitations. If we don't live beyond our means, mortgaging our future through massive amounts of household debt, if we don't fall victim to debilitating addictions to drugs or alcohol, if we’ve not wasted our time in pursuit of entertainment and possessions but invested in acquiring knowledge and developing our talents, we can focus our energies – working alone, or better still, in communities – and achieve truly extraordinary things.

By teaching our children to pursue not just their individual identity but also their individual freedom, we give them the tools they need to enable themselves to maximize their experience of life.