Book Review: The Right Kind of Crazy

Posted: October 27, 2016 in book, science
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The Right Kind of Crazy, written by Adam Steltzner with William Patrick, gives a candid glimpse into Steltzner’s career as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) culminating in his leading the successful Mars Science Laboratory mission to land the Curiosity rover.

Starting with Steltzner’s somewhat atypical childhood, education, and his landing a job at JPL (no pun intended, really), the book spends considerable time discussing people-oriented topics such as leadership and team dynamics and how those human elements are just as crucial to mission success as the design, building, and testing of the actual spacecraft. He also paints a detailed picture of the inner workings of JPL and the people behind its groundbreaking work.

For science geeks like me, especially those interested in how spacecraft work, the book offers an inside view of the entire process, from the initial choices of what technological approaches will be used (air bags vs. sky crane, guided flight vs. blunt-body entry, etc.), to the seemingly mundane but (to me) still interesting aspects of how big to make the rover wheels, what kind of material to use for the heat shield, and whether the center of navigation was correctly input into the software controlling atmospheric entry. Admittedly, I’m a person who made an exhaustive search of ISS hatch specifications (to add verisimilitude to a key action sequence I was writing), and yes—I enjoyed it. Those less enamored of technology’s inner workings might find some of the book’s mechanical descriptions somewhat dry.

Throughout the book, Steltzner develops what amounts to a philosophy of engineering, in part an acknowledgment of the unknowns that always lurk behind the curtain of reality, and the humility that is necessary to succeed despite those unknowns, to always dig deeper rather than be satisfied with the easy answer until you’re “right enough.” As I was reading the book, the recent crash of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander made Steltzner’s ideas even more pertinent. I would even suggest they apply beyond the world of engineering, to all of science, and even to everyday life. Steltzner points to the search for truth and understanding as a uniquely human quality. I agree.

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