Lessons from Pathfinder by Joyce Shin

I am coming around to writing my first ever blog post today, and it is timely that it is the Fourth of July.

Today, July 4th, is a special day because it represents pioneership and overcoming the seeming impossibilities associated with being a pioneer. This is particularly important to me, as I consider the early days of my grandparents, who found refuge and opportunity to pioneer a future in America to escape the oppressive forces in their home countries. Now it is 2017, and I reflect on how privileged I am to be American, where being a pioneer, unconstrained by fear or doubt, and making the impossible possible are the defining characteristics of who we are.  

July 4th, 2017 is not only the 241st anniversary of the founding of our great nation, but it is also the 20th anniversary of the landing of the Mars Pathfinder, a space mission from my NASA days, that is near and dear to my heart. Pathfinder was a four year journey, that precisely captures what I mean by being a pioneer. Prior to the Pathfinder, the last successful landing on Mars was by the Viking Spacecraft In 1976, a multi-billion dollar effort that took a decade to accomplish. In 1993, with new high ambitions, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) set out to launch a spacecraft to Mars three years later constrained by a budget of a few hundred million dollars. The objective of this bold mission was to land safely on Mars July 4, 1997, deploy a robot and do good science to celebrate America’s pioneering spirit. We set in motion not only for a mission NASA had never attempted, but also to change the ethos of the agency, stripping away the excessive resources, bureaucratic processes and rigid boundaries historically known to the organization, creating an environment for true pioneership in space exploration to emerge. With a small team of roughly 150 people, we were redefining what space exploration meant for the hundreds of millions of people in America who wanted bold exploration and science, yet wise and frugal use of their hard earned taxpayer dollars. 

While it was exciting to push the limitations of our research, we also experienced the challenges associated with being at the verge. We were embarking on something new, truly new, and not only faced the uncertainty of the venture itself, but were also challenged by the uncertainty that we had of ourselves and the uncertainty that others had of us. Rather than harp on our ultimate success, what I find to be more valuable are the lessons learned. These lessons I carry with me to this day and while there were many learnings from the Pathfinder mission, I've laid out three in the rest of this post.  

Lesson #1 

Mars is the the most visited place in our Solar System apart from the Moon and more than half of the roughly 100 missions have historically ended in failure. With such a high failure rate, the prevailing belief at the time was that explorations required massive projects with billions in funding and giant teams of engineers, scientists and technicians. With the Pathfinder, we made it our objective to be the first robotic lander that could traverse the Martian landscape and return good science. This caused the project to appear much too risky for some of our stellar talent and a good number opted to watch from the sidelines, predicting doom and gloom for the Pathfinder program.

For those who did choose to join the Pathfinder team, the challenge of achieving a bold ambition with a constrained budget and accelerated development schedule, as well limited buy-in from their fellow NASA colleagues, made them hungry and creative. This team, under the brilliant leadership of Tony Spear and Brian Muirhead, not only successfully landed the Pathfinder on Mars and deployed a robot for three times the mission design life, in spite the constraints placed upon them, but fundamentally changed the way we land on Mars and operate self propelled robots going forward because of these limitations. Of the tens of thousands in the NASA organization at the time, the bold JPL Pathfinder team of only 154 people got America back to Mars and kept us there for the next twenty years to this day at a price the taxpayers could afford and a shared pride of their American pioneership accomplishment.

What I learned is that when you are on truly unbeaten path, there is inherent risk, and even great people will opt out of your mission. This is ok.

Lesson #2

Our small Pathfinder team of 154 was certainly audacious. However, this ambition was not without doubt and opposition. More than having fellow colleagues at JPL opt out of their mission, the team had its fair share of naysayers across NASA and the space community who promoted that a significantly more economical approach to space exploration, particularly Mars exploration, was impossible. We were also explicitly on a mission to change the ingrained culture of a historic organization that directly represented our nation in preceding years up to my appointment during the Cold War, creating opposition natural to any change agents within a longstanding organization. Moreover, as we tested and crashed out in the field, it became more and more apparent to us how far we were from a successful mission, and even our own engineers in the Pathfinder team felt uncertain at a few weak moments of our odds out in space. No matter how audacious, bullheaded or crazy you are, your naysayers, opposition and your own internal hiccups do affect you. If they don't, I wonder if you were ever vested in the first place.

I attribute the team's success to the following characteristics in order of least to most tangible but all three in its exact order, I believe, are crucial to avoiding doubt from overtaking you. These are:

(i) belief it can be done at your core
(ii) a team invigorated with energy (for us, this meant recruiting young, brilliant scientists and engineers right out of school in some circumstances working in a lateral team with highly talented and experienced professionals)
(iii) a core value in rapid, repetitive testing in thought and in the physical domain 

The Pathfinder team hit this trifecta beautifully. When (i) belief may have wavered, (ii) energy kicked in and when energy may have waned, (iii) logical rapid testing drove small, yet meaningful advances to revive belief and energy.

What I learned is your team wins when it carries these three characteristics. Staunch belief in the mission is crucial, but it can certainly be tested. This is when energy and rational testing becomes critical to driving your mission.

Lesson #3 

The Mars Pathfinder established that major missions can, in fact, be accomplished with far fewer resources. The team succeeded in changing the way we approach explorations to space, and the broader agency began operating in the fashion of the Pathfinder team. During my time at NASA we launched hundreds of missions and a few did fail. But these failures were a small fraction, an order of magnitude less, in effort and cost of the total spend on projects that did succeed. As a result, we were able to conduct many more missions with less fear of failure. Compared to previous projects of the agency that cost billions and required success to make taxpayer contribution worth it, driving the cost down gave us freedom to fail while pushing boundaries. 

What I learned is when you drive the cost of efforts down significantly, it reduces risk and you can do more, contrary to popular belief at the time.  

The Pathfinder mission was one against the odds. It was a grand desire to be the first successful robotic lander on Mars with far less resources, support and manpower of prior lander missions in the history of the NASA. But the team triumphed, even as some of their colleagues chose not to participate in their mission and/or doubted their ability to succeed. This is exactly what I mean about pioneership -- making what seems to be impossible possible in uncharted territory. 

Those who know me would likely agree that I am not shy to bold ambitions, but it does not mean that I myself have never felt in the dark with fear of failure during the pursuit of such endeavors. My hope is that bringing these experiences to light, even those outside of NASA, will help make it that much more feasible for our pioneers today who are making the seemingly impossible possible and creating history. I’d like to not only salute those from my past, who contributed to the Pathfinder mission, but also acknowledge those in my present who are working with me today on an equally ambitious journey, as well as all the pioneers out there shaping the future of America and our world on this July 4th.