My first takeaway from "The Right Kind of Crazy" by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatMy first takeaway from "The Right Kind of Crazy" by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatever is holding you back.
Such is the brash but ultimately likable sentiment of Dr. Steltzner’s book, co-written with William Patrick. When his team successfully landed NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, Steltzner oversaw arguably the most revered NASA landing since Apollo 11 reached the surface of the Moon. To understand this incredible engineering feat, you should watch the viral NASA video known as the "Seven Minutes of Terror."
Curiosity’s landing captivated society. People stayed up late to watch live coverage in Times Square. Space enthusiasts like myself followed Twitter feeds on smartphones grasped in sweaty palms. The next day, A-list comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert featured the landing on their hit Comedy Central shows. Curiosity’s landing incited a cultural crush. Society realized just how colorful, cool, and even sexy, NASA could be. However, Steltzner’s book is not a wistful look back, nor is it an especially accessible primer for newcomers.
As the full title aptly states, the book is, "A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation." With a glaring lack of accompanying images, the co-writers impart the wisdom and perspective Steltzner gained over years of intensive trial-and-error mission development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The Right Kind of Crazy" doles out thoughtful anecdotes. Reflections and takeaways come fast and furious. Sometimes the writing exhibits a hasty, back-of-the-envelope quality. This book is not an immaculately laid out management treatise. If it were, the work wouldn’t be so very … Steltzner.
Steltzner brings a crooner’s magnetism to his thought leadership. Though often likened to Elvis, he shows a jazzy Sinatra side as well. In fact, Steltzner drops a lot of musical names and metaphors throughout "The Right Kind of Crazy". Occasionally I would pause my reading and jump on YouTube to sample the tunes he referenced. The book, like its author, also exudes a sports car driver’s swagger.
This brings us back to this review’s opening. In the book’s first chapter, Steltzner recounts a last-minute software glitch that might have led to mission failure. He sets up a “tiger team” to troubleshoot the problem—or as he puts it, “get it un-f***ed-up if possible.” Later in the same paragraph, this team assembles to have a “come-to-Jesus session.”
It is not the last time Steltzner mixes culture, religion, and profanity to get his points across. This is not reckless communication, even if it is rather loose tongued. With this approach, Steltzner drives to the core of the book’s ethos: engineering and exploration can be good, paradoxically non-destructive, battles. He explains this after referencing another engineer at JPL who swore in a heated intra-staff discussion fueled by competing ideas.
“To many readers that may not seem like very strong language, but for me, coming from an environment where I barely met the people I was working with and everything was filtered through others, this sounded like war. It was the kind of war I wanted to be a part of.”
Elsewhere, Steltzner describes his back and forth with colleagues as punch and counterpunch, like boxers sparring in preparation for the championship bout. Fighting is a recurring motif in the book. Also recurring, quite compatibly, is the notion of engineering displaying sexy, even naughty aspects. “All engineers have lust for designs we want to see realized…” Steltzner explains in a chapter entitled “Puzzle Pieces.”
Sometimes undercutting Steltzner’s noble goals are the complex structures at JPL—both mechanical and organizational. Such complexity forces the authors to do a lot of name dropping, coupled with copious shoptalk. Sometimes it runs together. Yet, the cumulative effect is to reveal the steely beauty of custom spacecraft held together by old-school nuts and bolts. In close-quarters fashion, the book acquaints readers with passionate scientists and engineers, as well as their methodically devised robotic love children.
Steltzner’s brand of crazy rightly offsets the stereotypical notion of NASA personnel as stodgy guys in lab coats. Such a style may challenge the comfort zones of taxpayers, as well as old guard types at NASA. Nevertheless, if the incredible cultural impact of the Curiosity rover’s landing proves lasting, "The Right Kind of Crazy" may come to define 21st Century space exploration....more
“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”
To a Star Wars fan there ou“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”
To a Star Wars fan there ought to be no question what or whom governs the galaxy. It must be the Force, or perhaps those who use it. Yet Chuck Wendig, author of “Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt”, lets float some skepticism through his third-person narration. Critical to note though, the narrator’s quote above closely follows the cunning mindset of Sinjir, an ex-officer of the evil Galactic Empire.
Sinjir, who also appeared in the first Aftermath novel, teams with a small ensemble of good guys. Their struggle takes place directly following the events of “Episode 6: Return of the Jedi.” Sinjir and the gang hunt down enemies of the New Republic like so many Nazi war criminals on the run. And as the plot escalates, Sinjir feels as if he is contending with the very galaxy itself.
When I cracked open my copy of “Life Debt,” I gave myself a supplementary reading exercise (cuz I’m an English Major and reading for enjoyment just ain’t enough). My plan was to track references that illuminate what the galaxy means to Star Wars characters. As a space enthusiast and NASA geek, I often ruminate on what our real-life galaxy means to humanity. By comparison, what does the Star Wars galaxy mean to its heroes and villains? Like me, do they find the cosmos romantic?
Not especially. For Star Wars characters, space is largely just a means to an end. For Imperial officers scrambling to retain power, for rebels founding a New Republic, for exotic lifeforms whatever their persuasion, and certainly for droids slaving away, spacefaring holds all the charm of an Earth-bound freeway commute.
Star Wars characters seem disinclined to exhibit Carl Sagan sentimentality of the Pale Blue Dot kind. I’ll quash a possible exception right off. Think back to Luke Skywalker gazing longingly at the twin sunset on Tatooine in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” He isn’t marveling at the astronomical glory of the nearby stars. Rather, Luke desires to fly beyond them in a quest for human glory as an Academy cadet.
Getting back to “Life Debt,” Wendig’s characters do see metaphorical value in the galaxy. In addition to all the cosmic star stuff—planets, stars, and nebulae—the term galaxy refers to collective culture with its ships, governments, and warring factions. Star Wars characters are more than just occupants of the galaxy; they are the galaxy.
Sinjir provides a vivid example. Over the course of “Life Debt,” he and his teammates find themselves caught up in Han Solo’s quest to free Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world. Learning of yet another violent outbreak, Sinjir finds himself acutely depressed. But does he blame Imperial forces for his disillusionment? No. Guess who he blames.
“Disappointment that the galaxy confirmed for him its worst self.”
Sinjir’s disappointment overturns a sense of hope Wendig proffered earlier in the novel through a bounty hunter named Jas. She joined the New Republic because of its winning potential: “Even still, she tells herself that she’s here because right now, the New Republic is the winning side. They don’t have the whole galaxy pinned down and buttoned up all nice and neat yet, no, but the stars are drifting in that direction.”
Is the galaxy a utility or an antagonist? It seems to depend on who is speaking and how things are going for them. The galaxy contains, perhaps even determines, individual and collective fate. Characters like Sinjir and Jas fret over what the galaxy holds in store for them. When the galaxy shakes and falls into disarray, Star Wars characters take it oh so personally. How dare you, galaxy! For me, it called to mind the disenchantment with which folks today utter the slang phrase “Mericuh” instead of America.
I’ve been anxious for “Life Debt’s” release, so I set out to race ecstatically through it. However, I kept needing to put it down and take a break. To be clear, the novel’s sometimes tiring effect stemmed from something other than literary weakness. Note my 4-star rating. Rather, the novel hits quite close to home. Wendig’s galaxy, in principle and theme, is not far, far way. Especially in its Interludes—chapters that function as stand-alone short stories—“Life Debt” reflects reality. In the love, fear, anger, and violence of Wendig’s prose, I see types from our non-fictional world.
To the extent that “Life Debt” mirrors real life, it falls short of escapism. Perhaps this is why I found the novel less fun than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I enjoyed witnessing the deepening bond of characters like Sinjir and Jas as they followed in Han Solo’s footsteps. Like “Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Life Debt” showcases tightly woven ensemble action. And like that classic film, “Life Debt” contains plenty of swashbuckling fun and humorous banter. Just don’t expect pure popcorn fare. In a candid and often intense way, Wendig manages to keep this fantastical galaxy substantive....more
What is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given ShakeWhat is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given Shakespeare sonnet that harps on marriage. Again, keep most of the words. Change only the object of the poet’s affection. Science poetry, as I’ve encountered it recently, is like any other poetry. The only difference is the wellspring of metaphor.
Geoff Landis may be best known in literary circles as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Mars Crossing. In the scientific community he is a highly accomplished researcher at NASA. But along the way he has written poetry. Or, as he quips on his website, “OK, I admit it: I also sometimes commit acts of poetry…”
The published result is a wonderful short volume of verse titled Iron Angels. Similar to Landis’s career, this collection straddles science and sci-fi. Some of the early poems, like “Earthrise, Viewed from Meridiani, Sol 687”, invoke distinctly Sagan-esque motifs, like Earth as a pale blue dot. The poetry links life together, both human generations and alien life separated by lightyears of space. In the age of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, such cosmic effusing counts as proverbial. And if these were the only poems Iron Angels contained, it would be a heartfelt but tiresome collection.
Iron Angels clears the launch tower, as it were, with a clever and crisply written piece titled “Christmas (When We All Get Time Machines).” Hint, if such a thing ever happens it may prove most unfortunate for the holiday. The poem gave me a chuckle even as it took me aback and made me truly think about the consequences of cheating Time.
Within the book's trim 55 pages, there is at least one shape poem, a smattering of haiku, a bit of rhyming, but mostly free verse—accessible and engrossing. At least a couple of poems blur whatever boundary might exist between flash fiction and poetry. I did not love every piece, nor find them all masterful. Yet, everywhere the verse smacked of deliberateness, of orchestrated word choice that does with text what talented painters do with oil on canvas.
Many of the poems are thoroughly grounded in everyday human experience. It is probably outright wrong to call it all science poetry. Some of the verse, including a few amusing cat poems (at least as amusing as anything on YouTube), seems like it may have been written as a diversion after a long day at the lab. Some of it is wonderfully romantic. And some of it, like “Snapshots,” is wonderfully haunting:
“I wonder, sometimes, about those people in the picture / so like us, and yet so strange. / If they were not trapped in the slippery squares of paper…”
I read contemporary poetry with suspicion. Is it truly poetry? Or is it just lazy prose slapped on the page with forced enjambments to appear poetic? Iron Angels is poetry. Moreover, Landis’s collection avoids the trap of being esoteric, intelligible only to scientists. These angels, steeped both in science and humanity, are worth invoking … and reading for enjoyment....more
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconcept
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconception…”
The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.
As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.
For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.
Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them....more