Thursday, August 9, 2012

30th Year Reflections/10: Service and Stewardship--The Right Stuff

“NASA's most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars early Monday EDT to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.”

— National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web site, August 6, 2012

Late Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday morning, glued to my computer and the NASA web site, I watched a most extraordinary event: the entry, descent, and landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. My vigil began at 22:30 hours (10:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time in our “normal” reckoning of the clock), the telemetric commentary and anticipation building with each minute. I followed the folks in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cheering with them at each stage of the “seven minutes of terror”: entry interface, peak heating and deceleration, hypersonic aero-manuevering, center of gravity offset elimination, parachute deploy, heat shield separation, landing engine throttle-up, powered approach, rover separation, sky crane maneuvers, touchdown, bridle and umbilical cord cut, descent stage flyaway and impact. On touchdown I screamed and clapped with unrestrained delight, not caring if I woke any family members sleeping a floor above. It was a stellar moment—a galactic, gold medal Olympic moment—for United States space flight and exploration. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology tweeted “There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now.” It was a great night!

I’m a big fan of space flight—since I was a small boy watching the rockets go up from my front yard in Florida—but what, you might ask, does this have to do with librarianship and my thirty years in the profession? The short answer might be “attitude”—that “can-do,” “right stuff,” “maintain an even strain,” “pushing the envelope” way of thinking and behaving. At the same time, while “maintaining an even strain,” our professional demeanor—stripped of complexity and jargon—is at its core about service and stewardship.

Curious about how this plays out within the context of NASA library operations, I wrote to their headquarters library in Washington, D.C. and received a prompt reply.

“Most of the NASA Centers support a library focusing on the particular needs of their facility….The Headquarters Library…serves as the agency’s ‘corporate library’ focusing on its management, policy, budgetary, interagency and international affairs, and public affairs and educational outreach operations. The HQ library does not include extensive resources in science or engineering. For a project such as Curiosity, our role would be to track legislative actions and hearings, providing NASA managers with information on public opinion, tracking down editorials and position papers from think-tanks and lobbyists. The information called upon by senior staff may include locating information on the economic impact of NASA Centers and projects. We may be asked to gather reports on previous mission failures in preparation for hearings or interviews. If there are controversial aspects to a mission, we would track public opinion polls, editorials, and position papers….our role in the agency is typically broader than individual missions. We have tracked down budgetary information on most of the worldwide space programs….. The library’s collection of policy documents dates back to the founding of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915. Our collection focuses on the final, publicly released reports while the NASA History Program Office focuses on internal documents and correspondence.”
It sounds like the NASA library program has “the right stuff” and goes about its business in a very professional manner, what we would expect from an agency that lands one-ton rovers on Mars.

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