Defects and Opportunities

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-by Matt Leedham

The other night I watching a TV show called “Mysteries at the Museum” on the Travel Channel. The premise of the show is to find random objects in a variety of museums that have an interesting, often mysterious history. There were stories about hidden treasures and unsolved murder cases. It was all very interesting.

But one story stood out to me. A museum had a replica of Spirit, the Mars Rover developed by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech. Spirit, and its twin, Opportunity, landed on Mars in January of 2004 with a mission to complete a 90-day exploration of the Martian surface. Spirit remained functional for over 5 years to the great delight of NASA scientists, far exceeding expectations. But this good fortune was not without a series of misfortunes.

Just three weeks after landing on Mars, Spirit stopped communicating with Mission Control. It just went dead. Understandably, NASA freaked out. If it was a hardware issue, they were done for and just wasted A LOT of tax payer money. But Spirit soon squeaked out a small bit of information to Mission Control, and it looked as though it was a software issue that might be causing the onboard computer to overheat. After further examination, engineers discovered that Spirit’s memory was full, so it just stopped doing things. They deleted some unneeded files, and just like that, Spirit began to function normally.

Other interesting and unaccounted for challenges popped up, such as too much dust covering the solar panels that provided power to Spirit, and soft soil that created a treacherous travel terrain. As a result of this, Spirit’s front wheel began to have issues. It soon became inoperable, preventing the rover from driving forward.

There are no mechanics on Mars, and no way for Spirit to fix its wheel. So, NASA engineers and their teams of rocket scientists in their jet propulsion laboratory came up with a brilliantly simple solution that I think any 3rd grader would have also concluded. They decided to drive the rover backwards, dragging the broken wheel. It would take more energy, but at least they could still move around.

Spirit soon found itself in more loose soil, dragging its wheel, which one NASA engineer described as a “boat anchor.” The engineers were fearful that this was going to be end of the mission.

Spirit’s camera took pictures of the terrain from all angles. When it took a picture of the path they had left behind, they saw the marking of the broken wheel, dragging in the loose soil. It was a deep gash in the Martian surface, showing how much Spirit was struggling to drive on.

But they saw something else too.

In the upturned soil, there was something glimmering in the bright sun. Something they hadn’t seen before in the other images that had been taken over years of exploration.

Spirit took a sample of this unknown substance and ran it through a litany of scientific instruments and tests aboard the rover. The results of these tests showed something entirely unexpected.

Silica. On earth, Silica is found in abundance in hot springs. Hot springs are known to be an excellent breeding ground for bacteria and are typically teaming with living organisms.

Spirit just discovered that life-sustaining conditions once existed on Mars.

The narrator ended the segment with, “What was once a threat to the mission, the broken wheel of Spirit uncovered this remarkable discovery.”

I share this story because I see so many parallels to human achievement and potential. I see so many people focused on what they lack and don’t have, or what’s wrong with them or their “situation.” Hidden underneath all of that is great opportunity and potential.

The message is simple. Be Spirit. Use your perceived “broken wheel” to change humankind.

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