How to land on a comet

We can all learn something from the European Space Agency. They had a vision for where they wanted to go, they figured out what they needed to do to get there and then they did it.

Their goal was to land a probe on a comet to learn more about the origins of the Solar System. They achieved their goal last week, scoring a first for humanity and making a lot of scientists splutter with excitement.

Landing on a comet is not a zippy exercise like in Armageddon where you just slingshot Bruce Willis around the moon. Nor is it like The Empire Strikes Back where you zoom across the galaxy for a few minutes before reversing onto an asteroid.

The ESA scientists had to plan ahead for a ten year journey through the Solar System, culminating in a complex set of manoeuvres that required their spaceship and its little probe to approach, orbit and land on a comet that was moving at 135,000 kilometres per hour.

This is a project that was given formal approval in 1993. Could we have envisaged landing on a comet in 1993? In 1993 I had no clue what I would be doing in 2014, let alone how to plan it into reality. As far as I was concerned, 2014 was a future that would happen to me whether I liked it or not.

In contrast, people at ESA were proactive about making the future happen on their own terms.

Imagine sitting round the boardroom in 1993 with this on your agenda: “The Rosetta Mission is a proposal to land a probe on a comet. If we start planning now we can achieve this in about 20 years. The estimated cost is a billion of whatever currency we’ll be using by then.”

I admire the fortitude of people who have the vision to take on something like that.

The ESA website points out that the Rosetta project’s total cost over 20 years is barely half the price of a submarine – as though that puts it into perspective. Not being familiar with submarine procurement, I don’t find it a particularly helpful analogy.

The cost is actually a red herring. It’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize a big price tag. The real question is whether the cost is an investment that moves you nearer your goal, or a burden that slows you down.

If you know what you’re trying to achieve in the first place every decision along the way will make more sense.

Fifteen years ago a friend of mine, Steve Hathaway, said to me, “I’m going to make my own TV show about New Zealand’s underwater life.” He was a builder at the time. It’s possible I laughed at him. But he knew where he wanted to end up.

This year the first 10 episodes of his show Young Ocean Explorers screened on What Now?. He is producing a companion book and video series for New Zealand schools and his underwater footage has been used by BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and closer to home, TV One’s Our Big Blue Backyard. Not bad for a chippy.

If I could go back to 1993 and give myself some advice it would be “don’t sit around waiting for something magical to happen to you. Figure out where you want to be ten years from now. Then figure out what you need to do to get there.”

The classic aphorism here is begin with the end in mind. Look at the European Space Agency and their brave little space probe. They were clear about what they wanted to achieve, and why. That clarity empowered them to shoot for the stars.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 November 2014. Reproduced with permission.