For most of us, life is too short to be a billionaire or the president, but long enough to make a couple of humble dreams come true.
I’m already 38. Probably around the halfway point of this life. Some dreams came true while many others have not. I am still struggling. While I am far from being ready to become an old man who preaches life lessons to younger friends, I learned one obvious thing through my struggles: what it takes to make a dream come true is perseverance.
Tomorrow, on February 18, 2021, my dream will land on Mars. It is a dream named Perseverance.
1. Before JPL – A Broken Dream
My heart has been in space since childhood. When I was six years old Voyager 2 reached Neptune. She left the Earth before I was born and sailed for 12 years in the interplanetary space to the most remote planet of the Solar System 28 billion miles away. I literary spent the whole summer in front of the TV so that we wouldn’t miss any news from Voyager 2.
“If the Earth was the size of a marble, Neptune would still be 5 kilometers (3 miles) away,” said my father, who is an engineer and an amateur astronomer. Wow, I thought. My father’s words kindled a spectacular imagination in my childhood mind. What an incredible vastness of the cosmos. What a miracle that humans built a machine that flew over such a mind-boggling distance. I would create a spacecraft like Voyager when I grew up, I thought.
In 1997, when I was 14, Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars for the first time in 20 years. On the day of landing, I was sitting in a living room in Tokyo, Japan, watching the TV broadcast from the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Mars Pathfinder spacecraft was going to plunge into the Martian atmosphere at more than 16,600 miles per hour and reach the ground just in seven minutes or so. Since it takes more than 10 minutes for the radio to travel from Mars to Earth, by the time when the engineers on Earth received the signal of atmospheric entry, the spacecraft would have successfully landed on or miserably crashed to the surface. The only thing they could during the “seven minutes of terror” was to wait. Some engineers in the control room were anxiously gazing at the monitor while others were walking around nervously. Seven minutes were like forever.
Then the signal came in, which unmistakably indicated a successful landing. The room burst into cheer. The engineers were jumping like children, hugging each other, and crying tears of joy.
I had never seen any adults around me expressing happiness like that.
In 2004, when the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars, I was a college student studying aerospace engineering. Again, on the TV screen, adults in Pasadena were jumping like children, hugging each other, and crying tears of joy.
I wanted to become a part of it. So, I went across the ocean to America, the country that created the great spacecraft.
I went through substantial hardships at MIT. I won’t repeat the full story here since I wrote about it before, but I initially suffered from my English ability, then the adaptation to the foreign culture, and of course, the highly demanding and fiercely completive environment at MIT. I once lost confidence and even my dream. It was only because of the kindest support from my family, friends, advisors, and colleagues, as well as enormous luck, that I could get a Ph.D.
Then I knocked on the door of my dream place since I was six years old: NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory. The interviewers might be the engineers who were jumping like kids on the TV.
The result was negative.
So, I went back to Japan in disappointment and became a faculty at Keio University. Four months later, in August 2012, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. I watched the live stream on my laptop in the school cafeteria alone. During the “seven minutes of terror,” engineers in blue polo shirts with the mission logo on their chest were anxiously watching the computer screens. When they received the signal indicating the successful landing, they jumped like children and hugged each other with tears of joy. Some of them seemed to be around the same age as me.
Despite the happy outcome, I was far from happy. I felt pain like having a knife inside my body. Why was I on this side of the screen instead of the other side? Why was I crying tears of bitterness instead of joy? Would my dream be tied up to the Earth forever?
2. Struggle at the Dream Workplace
How did I end up in JPL from which I was once rejected? Well, it was a long story, but after a fortunate turn of events, I was invited to an interview again thanks to a few people at JPL who understood me and my work. I made every possible effort to grab the opportunity. And this time, I made it.
In May 2013, I started working at JPL as an employee. The dream would finally come true, I thought. In truth, it was not that straightforward.
On the first day, I was assigned to three tasks: modeling and simulation for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), Mars rover landing site analysis, and research for the Navy.
ARM was a highly ambitious mission to grab a whole asteroid and bring it back near the Earth, which was planned to be launched in 2017. I was very excited. My work would fly to space in just four years. I thought that, once it went successful, I would jump like a kid, hug each other with my colleagues, and cry tears of joy. However, in less than one year, there was a change in the mission and my team was dissolved.
The Mars landing site analysis job was also highly exciting. However, it was soon descoped. “Descope” is a NASA way of indirectly saying that your work is not needed anymore.
I had to look for a new job because, at JPL, you are not automatically assigned to tasks even if you are employed. At one point there was a particularly appealing job posting: Curiosity operator. Put plainly, it was a job to drive the Mars rover.
Of course, I applied. I went through internal interviews. And, alas, I didn’t get it.
OK, then I would create interesting jobs myself, I thought. I wrote a number of grant proposals and, after many trials and errors, I won several research grants for Mars and asteroid applications. As the PI, I led the research teams and worked hard to produce technologies that would enable new capabilities for future spacecraft. I hoped, one day, we would fly our technologies to space.
Thanks to the excellent work done by the talented and hard-working team members, we produced several technologies that are highly promising, at least in our opinion. Excited and hopeful, I brought them to flight projects. In most cases, we got the cold shoulder. “Too soon” was their typical answer.
Sometimes I was tempted to give up. Every time my birthday came up, I felt a growing sense of urgency that I am behind and the time is running out. It was like Franz Kafka’s The Castle. You keep walking in the snow to the castle, which is clearly visible. But It can never be reached however long you walk. You don’t even know if this road leads to the mysterious castle…
3. A Dream Worth Persevering
Soon after I joined JPL a small group of employees started preparing for the next Mars rover mission, which was later named “Mars 2020” because it would be launched in 2020. Once the mission was officially approved by NASA, the team started to grow and, a few years later, an opportunity came up for me.
The job was the landing site traversability analysis for supporting the landing site selection. The managers of Mars 2020 somehow got aware of my descoped Mars landing site analysis work and considered me or another guy for entrusting this job.
Soon I was invited by the managers to give a presentation. I never wanted to let this opportunity slip away again. I worked nights and weekends to improve the simulation, spent tens of hours preparing the slides, and practiced the talk in front of a mirror till I memorized every word. I usually went to work in a T-shirt and flip-flops, but on the day of the presentation, I wore a collared shirt and polished shoes.
The presentation went perfectly.
A few weeks later, during a conference in Montana, the section manager who was also in the conference told me that I won the job. The news made me extremely happy, although there was no one there to hug each other. I was jumping like kids only in my heart.
I started off the job right after I returned from the conference. I not only developed the analysis program but also led a team of five. Furthermore, I was advised by a highly experienced rover driver throughout the task and I learned a lot about the reality of Mars rover missions from him.
For the first time at JPL, I came a little bit closer to the castle.
After a year or so, another opportunity opened up. Mars 2020 decided to upgrade the rover’s autonomous driving capability called AutoNav. It was directly relevant to my core expertise and the research that I had done was potentially applicable. I was particularly excited about the opportunity because, if I could join, my code would fly to Mars. I appealed, directly or indirectly, to the interested persons to let me join the task.
It turned out that the task would be led by a colleague who is close to me. He was employed just a few months before me by the same boss and had similar age and background. Towards him, I had a mixed feeling of friendship, respect, and to be honest, rivalry. Well, but the sense of rivalry was likely unilateral because he was far ahead of me. He was accepted to become Curiosity’s rover driver when I was rejected. He also won several big research grants. And now, he kindly invited me to the team that I was eager to join. I knew enough what to do. I threw away my little, meaningless pride into the trash bin and jumped on his team.
I learned a lot from him throughout the task. And I cannot thank him more. Writing a code for the Mars rover was the job that I am most proud of. Among numerous tasks I was involved in at JPL, I always talk about this one when I was asked what I do in my work by someone, including my own daughter. I hope it is what she is proud of about her dad, too. Of course, Mars 2020 is a huge project and my contribution is just a very tiny fraction of its extensive and highly complex flight software. But it is true, absolutely and undeniably true, that my work will soon land on the red planet.
I moved on to another job after the main development phase was done in about two years. However, there was one remaining thing that I was aspiring to do in the Mars 2020 mission: to jump like kids, hug each other with my teammates, and cry tears of joy.
So, I talked to the interested persons and appealed directly or indirectly to let me join the operation team. The interview was held remotely because the pandemic had set off by that time. This time, I was confident because I had a pile of experiences in Mars 2020.
The good news came in a week or two after. I was, of course, very happy. But the reflection of the path that led up to here made my heart calm. It was, indeed, a long way.
A little before I joined the operation team, the name of the rover was announced: Perseverance. There would be no better name for the ambassador to Mars who represents mankind during the relentless pandemic.
But the name also carries a special meaning to me. I have been building my career like piling up bricks slowly, one by one. It took me 30 years since Voyager 2 and 15 years since I crossed the ocean till the brick wall finally reached the height of one of my humble dreams. I didn’t think it would take that long. But it is a dream worth persevering.
4. What it Takes to Make a Humble Dream Come True
In my adolescence, I was as ambitious as anyone at that age. Just as Elon Musk would be a hero for the current Gen Zs who dream of space, in my youth I read about great innovators who made major achievements in their 20s and 30s, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Werner von Braun, Margaret Hamilton, and Steve Jobs, and I wanted to follow their path. So I kept running till I made one of my humble dreams come true, and I found myself already 38, far behind what they achieved when they were 38.
And finally, I understood the well-known wisdom that every philosopher and thinker in history has been repeating numerous times over thousands of years: what it takes to make a dream come true is perseverance.
It is absolutely true that the great innovators who made their fame in youth worked hard like no one can imagine. But it is also true that their success was attributed, at least in part, to luck. I am not saying that I could be Einstein if I was luckier. But in a parallel universe where Einstein was born ten or twenty years later, probably another genius would have discovered relativity before him. No one in this universe knows the name of the genius because s/he could not be Einstein. What if von Braun happened to be captured by Russians instead of Americans? What if Jobs did not happen to meet Steve Wozniak? There must be numerous unknown innovators-to-be in history who worked as hard as them but were not as lucky as them.
For most of us, life is too short to be Elon Musk. But you can be something if you keep working hard for ten, twenty, or thirty years. If you are lucky enough to be granted seventy or eighty years of lifetime, that should be sufficient to make a humble dream or two come true. Yes, young folks should dream big and follow their heart. But an important thing to remember is to continue your effort even if, at some point in your life, you realized that you cannot become Elon Musk. Life is like a jellyfish washed by waves called luck. The only way for the jellyfish to go south for sure is to persevere in swimming to the south.
One of my humble dreams will come true if Perseverance successfully lands on Mars tomorrow, Of course, that is not the goal of my life. My ultimate dream is bigger than that. I might not be able to become von Braun. The wave of luck will be sometimes behind me and sometimes against me. However, what I should do in the rest of my life is as clear as the eastern horizon in the twilight: to persevere.
5. A Dream Named Perseverance
Perseverance’s landing on Mars will be at around 12:55 PM in Pacific Time tomorrow. Since my first shift will be on the fourth day, I won’t be in the operation room at the moment of landing. Nor I won’t be able to hug each other with my colleagues due to the pandemic. I will probably watch the live streaming just like everyone else.
Nonetheless, it will be clearly different from the previous landings because I am a part of the team. It is the rover that will run my code on the site that I helped select. During the “seven minutes of terror” I will anxiously monitor the data arriving from Mars. When the good news is delivered, I will jump like kids in my house and hug my colleagues in my mind. Will I cry? Maybe. But it won’t be tears of bitterness anymore, for my hunble dream has finally come true after many years of perseverance.
Research Technologist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, creating AI for spacecraft. Author of three books for the general readers (in Japanese). Father of a 4-year-old princess, a backpacker who has visited 30+ countries, an amateur astronomer armed with a 6-inch reflector, and an acoustic guitarist who is only allowed to play Disney songs these days.