On August 6th 2012, tens of millions of people around the world watched on TV as NASA’s Curiosity rover landed near Mount Sharp on the Red Planet. No space shot had caused such excitement since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
One of the key figures on the Curiosity team was a flamboyant engineer who defies all the stereotypes of the geek. A former bass player in a rock-and-roll band who likes to go to work in snakeskin cowboy boots, Adam Steltzner led the team that invented the revolutionary Sky Crane, which enabled the Curiosity rover to set down on Mars as gently as a duck landing on a pond.
His new book, The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership and High Stakes Innovation, recalls the heady days leading up to that moment—and how someone who failed high school geometry became one of the world’s leading space engineers. Speaking from his home in Pasadena, California, he describes how his father’s fear of failure motivated him to succeed; why it’s important to show your “freak flag” at work; and how his latest Mars project may one day answer the question that has obsessed humanity since the dawn of time.
Your father famously said the only thing you would amount to would be a ditch-digger. Talk a bit about your father—and how his negative example inspired you.
My father was an incredibly brilliant man but frozen in his self-criticism and fear of failure. He was very pushy; he wanted to see performance and success from his children, the likes of which he could never get because he could never risk failure in pursuit of that success. Both my brother and I rebelled: We were poor students who didn’t want to give the performance he wanted. We were also a little bit fearful of trying hard because if it was scary for Dad, maybe it was something we should be scared about, too. It was only later in life, and really because I did not want to become my father, that I decided to take the opposite direction. In the big book of engineering, the world in which I live, I am attracted to the problems that are the most challenging, the most risky, the problems for which success is the least guaranteed. In some regards, that’s because I don’t want to find myself suffering the fate of my father, which was to always sit on the sidelines.
You have said, “If something is revolutionary, it probably looks crazy. The problem is: Crazy looks crazy, too.” Tell us about the Sky Crane and the Mars mission.
We were struggling to figure out how to land this big rover, the size of a Mini Cooper, on the surface of Mars. We thought about using air bags, like on the Mars Pathfinder Mission. But that was a tiny, toaster oven-sized rover. This big, car-sized rover was a whole different kettle of fish. We tried to invent something called the pallet lander and concluded that that wouldn’t work, either. So, in the fall of 2003, we gathered together and asked, “Have we missed something? Is there a way of cutting and pasting old and new methods that could help us land this thing?” That’s when we came up with the Sky Crane. [Watch how the Sky Crane worked.]
The Sky Crane is essentially a maneuver that the spacecraft goes through. We fly for a while with a jet backpack on top of the rover. Then, about 60-75 feet above the surface of Mars, we lower the rover below the jet backpack and the two descend together separated by about 25 feet of cable until the rover’s weight is taken up by the Martian surface. When we sense that slack, we cut the cables free and the jet backpack flies off to a safe distance.
The title of the book comes from the chief NASA administrator after he brought us to D.C. to explain our idea to him. It was a long explanation and a whole bunch of debate back and forth. At the end he said, “I still think it’s crazy. But it might be just crazy enough to work. It might be the right kind of crazy.”
You dubbed the last phase of Curiosity’s descent “the Seven Minutes of Terror.” Put us inside your skin in those last minutes.
It takes seven minutes from the time we enter the Martian atmosphere until the vehicle is safe on the surface. During that time, the rover is in control. It takes almost 14 minutes for the signals from Mars to get to us here on Earth. We can’t joy stick it; we can’t help the rover get to the surface of Mars safely. So we put all of our thinking and understanding into software inside the space craft, then we patted it on the tush and wished it luck. It was on its own. We dubbed that period of time we were waiting for the rover to navigate herself the Seven Minutes of Terror.
Thousands of people had been involved in the mission, across 37 states and foreign scientific contributions. Many of us, including myself, had the better part of a decade invested in this. During large chunks of those seven minutes you are holding your breath. Then, when you get the signal that the rover has landed, it’s surreal. It’s elation on a proportion you can’t recognize. All these years of investment and it actually happened!
An estimated 50 million people worldwide watched Curiosity land. Not since the Apollo moon missions has the public been so captivated by space exploration. Why has space become sexy again?
Space exploration is always sexy. It’s a fundamental gesture of our humanity. But in the years of the shuttle operations we weren’t doing as much exploration. We were going to the same spot and conducting experiments that, to the American people and the world, looked similar to the ones that had been done before—and before. The landing of Curiosity was an expedition of epic and novel proportions, which represented true exploration. The American people and the world public engaged with that.
Curiosity is not just the name of the rover. It’s a big force in your life, isn’t it?
NASA names their rovers by putting out an open competition to schoolchildren. We get tens of thousands of essays, and I was in a group of people looking at taking those names to hand to NASA HQ. Curiosity came across the lists and I was elated. First, because that rover was acting on behalf of our humanity’s curiosity. And, second, because curiosity had shaped my personal path to that moment.
I was a terrible student in high school. In my twenties, I ended up playing bass in the San Francisco Bay area. I was not well educated and not particularly happy. One night, returning from a gig, I noticed the stars were in a different place in the night sky than they had been when I drove out. I had missed that whole Earth-spinning-on-its-axis thing in high school, so I thought the stars were moving. But I became curious and allowed myself to follow my curiosity down to the local community college to take an astronomy course to explain why the stars were moving. Thankfully, that astronomy course required a conceptual physics for poets course, without math. So I took that course and it changed my life. That little spark of curiosity I had found looking at the stars in the night sky erupted into flames, and I became consumed with a desire to understand the world and the universe around me.
You compress one of your mottos for success into the mnemonic HOTTD (“holding onto the doubt.”) Why is doubt useful?
Ah! [Laughs] I learned early on, even in my college education, that the open question can be—and almost uniformly is—terrifying. It fills us with doubt as to whether we can answer. Can we fill the void with something useful and purposeful? I’ve found for myself, and I’ve even seen it in others, that the fear of the open question forces people to rush into solutions and answers.
I call that fear-based decision-making because you’re allowing your anxiety and fear of the open question to drive your decision process. I found that if I could hold on to the doubt the solutions I discovered would be superior to those I would rush into. I keep that in my mind today when faced with a range of questions, whether engineering, personnel management, or team-building questions. Allowing yourself to think deeply, and not rush into the answer, helps get the best solutions.
You say, “Most, if not all, of the great works of our species have been team efforts.” What’s the key to successful teamwork?
Liking people is probably one of the key pieces. Self-awareness and awareness and appreciation of the psyches of the people you work with are the hallmarks. I personally want to have a good time when I’m at work. If you look at the proportion of time I spend at work, it’s a large fraction of my waking hours. So I try to find something to love in everybody I work with: not because I’m trying to make the world a better place, although I think it does make the world a better place, but because I’m selfish. I want to look for the thing that will give me joy in my colleagues. When I do that I find I am having a good time, and they notice it. Typically, they try it out on their colleagues. Pretty soon we are swimming in a sea of mutual appreciation that makes going to work a blast—and the product of the team far superior.
You have been variously described as a “loose cannon” and “arrogant” by your colleagues. Are they right?
Yes, absolutely! And: No, of course not! [Laughs] I like to joke that I am frequently misunderstood as being arrogant. I don’t believe that I actually am, but I am confident and willing to risk more than the average bear in my pursuit of what might be true and right. That assertiveness can easily be seen as arrogant. I will hold on tight to what I think is right and defend it vigorously. But when I recognize that what I’ve discovered is right is wrong, I can drop it like a hot potato.
I think we’re best when we bring the fullness of ourselves, all that mixed character, into play. People are grumpy or super happy; arrogant or bashful; and all those things are important. I think we’re at our best when we’re not filtering all that down, not trying to be a uniform homogenous human product, but allowing our freak flag to show.
You are currently working on a sampling system for the next mission to the Red Planet. Why is it important to you that there might be life on Mars?
One of the profound questions that hangs in front of us as humans is, “Are we alone? Is this life that we see pluming all around us on Earth, the only life in the universe? Could one of our nearest neighbors harbor or have harbored life? How did life evolve?” The Viking Mission looked for existing life the way they understood to look for it in the '70s. But the scientists tell us that to really unlock the mystery of possible life in the solar system we have to return samples here to Earth.
I’m the chief engineer of the Mars 2020 Project, which will put a rover similar to Curiosity on Mars, but with a sampling system I helped develop that will take core samples of the rock material of Mars and hermetically seal them in sterile vials for eventual return to Earth. The follow-on mission will pick them up and bring them home to a facility where scientists could interrogate them with greater flexibility. At the core of the mission is an attempt to answer this profound question: Are we alone?
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.