It is a bright morning in Pasadena, California as the man walks from his car in the parking lot, pausing only to listen for the chirp chirp characteristic of his key-fob lock. As he walks away, he replaces his keys in his pocket and removes a different small object: his ID pass. Fred Earle, it says, Systems Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He holds it up to the door scanner, which buzzes as it unlocks the door. Stepping into the whoosh of cold air, Fred reflects on the life decisions he made that brought him to where he is.
As a child, Fred Earle had always wanted to be an astronaut. While not old enough to have been around for the Apollo flights and surrounding buzz, he was excited by both the manned shuttle missions and the first, albeit primitive, unmanned space probes. During his school years, he worked hard in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry all in the hopes of becoming one of the few selected to go into space with NASA. He even pursued a major in aerospace engineering in university, also minoring in physics.
He applied for every NASA astronaut class every single year, but was always rejected due to his height. Being six foot three meant that he was always on the cusp of NASA’s requirements, and that small factor usually was just enough to bounce him to the rejected bin. After years of trying, however, Fred managed to land a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Pasadena, California organization that runs, tests, and designs many of NASA’s unmanned missions.
While this position got him closer to his dream, he always felt a longing for something more Not necessarily to travel in space himself, but for more involvement in an active mission as opposed to his current job of designing mostly-cancelled prototypes.
Luckily for Fred, one of the less-costly projects he was a planner for, initially cancelled, received enough outside investment and media attention to earn it a spot on NASA’s tight budget. He finally was able to move with a project out of the planning stage, and into actual logistics and budgeting. In his (admittedly) small role as supplemental flight engineer, he was able to assist in the tweaks, problem-solving, and prototyping of the design for a new lander: one that would be able to autonomously return a sample from Mars back to Earth.
Despite meeting seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the project continued to move forward. Eventually, it all began to lead up to the final day, the day we join Fred, the day the spacecraft would be re-launching from Mars. Jogging quickly to the control room, Fred puts on his headset and begins to mentally prepare himself for the metaphorical marathon of the launch process. The spacecraft had technically already launched (or, possibly, not launched) on its return, but the signal delay meant that they would not know what had happened until the data reached them.
As the launch nears, Fred and the others can sense the tension rising. The spacecraft’s signals confirm it has verified itself, and begun the power up process on the engines. Heater on, igniter primed, fuel pump active… After agonizing minutes of testing, the countdown begins: 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … The controllers hold their breath. 1 … Liftoff confirmed. While the media go into a frenzy, Fred and his colleges know that the launch itself is not the problem: it is the clearing of the atmosphere that is the true test. The ship appears to be rising through the lower atmosphere when, abruptly, the feed cuts out. The media gasp as the controllers, including Fred, attempt to regain communications. Seconds go by agonizingly slowly as fix after fix is thought of and tested. Finally, after a seemingly-infinite gap, the feed comes back to life. The controllers then jump out of their seats and celebrate wildly, for they see that the probe, despite the malfunction, has made it out of the gravity well and is headed back to Earth.
Fred, having waited so long for this moment, cheers even more wildly than the rest. Despite the fact that he will never become an astronaut, Fred realizes what his dream has brought him: the motivation to persevere through the difficulties and work through the challenges of becoming a NASA engineer, and be able to celebrate that a probe he was a team member on was a success.