Space / Thursday, December 11th, 2014

I sat through a two-day review on the Europa Clipper study (fortunately I only had to present once). It’s not easy to listen to that much, but one thing that made my day was the level of appreciation people had for their coworkers. One coworker specifically opened his presentation by saying that he had assembled the best team, and were it not for them he couldn’t have accomplished very much at all. Several more times throughout the presentation he emphasized the quality of the people he worked with. I had a big grin on my face. I know the feeling.

It’s that humility and graciousness that makes the people I work with so enjoyable. Like any workplace, there are varying degrees of this, but my experience has been that people recognize the work we do is tough enough without feeling the need to take credit for the work of others or stepping on their toes. There’s always plenty of work from millions of lines of codes to thousands of nuts and bolts to pages of procedures and documents. Generally speaking, the people I work with have a strong sense of pride that they’re contributing to something tremendous.

One of the things I love about working at NASA is that it let’s me be a part of something so much bigger than myself. There’s the immediate team that I work with, projects, and support staff that help us do our jobs more efficiently (for some reason, one person that always comes to mind is the operations facility manager, Jim McClure here at JPL, who makes sure that the rooms and networks and power supply and every manner of thing is perfectly functional so that we can focus on spacecraft telemetry). Beyond that of course, I’ve always felt like NASA is a family. (It’s a very good analogy as there is almost certainly a little sibling rivalry between each of the centers at NASA, but ultimately we all rally around the accomplishments of each other)

The team I worked with on Curiosity was no exception – a group of people that are extraordinarily talented (some of which I had admired before working here at JPL, based on my love of the Mars Pathfinder mission). With my found celebrity I always try to highlight the teamwork that led to the success of the mission, because really these were my friends and family for nearly a decade. (Side note: it’s also nearly impossible to avoid some sense of impostor syndrome when working with such talented people)

History bears me out, Neil Armstrong, the world’s first person to step foot on the moon was notorious for his humility and teamwork. Charlie Bolden, NASA’s adminstrator, said of Armstrong “Neil will always be remembered for taking human kind’s first small step on a world beyond our own but it was the courage grace and humility he displayed throughout this life that lifted him above the stars.” His teammate on Gemini 8, and subsequent Apollo 15 commander, David Scott referred to Armstrong as “a team player, he always worked on behalf of the team.” (both quotes sourced from here:

Armstrong accomplished something incredible stepping on the moon, but I think it was that humility and appreciation of the efforts of thousands of men and women that will be his greatest legacy.

So be grateful. Publicly thank the people around you who contribute to your life and efforts.

I’ll start – thanks JPL and NASA for letting me do the things I dreamed of doing as a kid.