Review: The Right Kind of Crazy
by Jeff Foust
|At one level, The Right Kind of Crazy is a fairly conventional memoir about a person with an unconventional career path.|
Another such question is, “How did you land a rover on Mars?” Adam Steltzner got that question a lot three and a half years ago, when the Curiosity rover successfully touched down on the surface of Mars using a landing system developed by a team at JPL led by Steltzner. The Right Kind of Crazy (a title taken from then-NASA administrator Mike Griffin’s assessment of Curiosity’s landing system after a briefing early in the mission’s development) is his effort to answer that question, offering both technical and more general lessons learned.
At one level, The Right Kind of Crazy is a fairly conventional memoir about a person with an unconventional career path. Steltzner was not a motivated student in high school, and after graduating worked in a store while playing in a band. A chance event—noticing the motions of stars in the sky as he drove to and from a gig—got him interested in astronomy and, by extension, physics, where he discovered his true calling. That put him on a career path that led to degrees in engineering and a job at JPL working on various missions, including the Mars Exploration Rovers and, later, Curiosity.
There were, of course, many challenges along the way, which Steltzner spends much of the book discussing: the technical issues involved in developing systems to safely land rovers on Mars, but also managing programs and working within a larger bureaucracy. He doesn’t hesitate to discuss where he made mistakes, and the lessons he learned from them. That makes the book, on another level, almost a business guide, describing how to foster innovation and successfully guide challenging projects (tips also highlighted in a bulleted list on the book jacket.)
The book got some attention a few weeks ago in a Forbes article that claimed that Steltzner “rips NASA” in the book. An example of that criticism cited in the article is a passage where Steltzner writes, “One of the problems with space exploration is that we never have enough iterations to allow us to fully learn from our mistakes.” But upon closer examination, Steltzner is not criticizing NASA, but facing a long-standing fact about spaceflight: large missions take a long time to develop, and thus it’s important to ask the right questions when starting a project, and then, as he puts it, listen “deeply” to the answers. He might like a higher frequency of missions, but is enough of a realist to acknowledge that’s not likely, at least for the cutting-edge exploration missions he works on. In effect, he treats that as a constraint that must be reckoned with if a project must be successful, much like any other technical, financial, or other limitation.
|“One of the problems with space exploration is that we never have enough iterations to allow us to fully learn from our mistakes.”|
If there’s one flaw in the book, it’s that it could have used some tighter editing and fact checking. Some of the flaws are minor typos (a reference to “NASA Langeley” or an “Atlas V-51” rocket.) Elsewhere, recalling the impending landing of Curiosity, he refers to a seven-minute delay in getting word about the landing because of the time it takes for signals to get from Mars to the Earth; in fact, at the time of the landing, the one-way light travel time was nearly double that.
In the book’s epilogue, Steltzner makes clear he’s not resting on his laurels: he’s involved in NASA’s next Mars rover mission, which will be similar to Curiosity but designed to collect samples for return to Earth. He’s also involved in studies of a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, one that may also include a lander at the instigation of a key member of Congress, Rep. John Culberson of Texas. If those missions are successful, it will be in large part because of the lessons he describes in The Right Kind of Crazy on successfully tapping into the innovation needed to overcome the obstacles they face.