What is the one thing spaceflight needs most?

International Space Station

Photo Credit: NASA

Thank you to The Mars Generation advisory board member Nujoud Merancy for writing this guest post about the key to spaceflight.

Spaceflight is hard. This is a well known fact to the engineers, scientists and astronauts that contribute in this industry. Regardless of your background, if you’ve made it to these pages, you probably have some understanding of this inherent difficulty. The factors that make space hard are numerous: the environment, the complexity of the vehicles, the costs, the politics and the time all play a role. These are all interrelated factors–the need to save cost by using a smaller rocket demands a lighter perhaps more complex vehicle to survive the stresses of launch. Optimizing for the vehicle then takes more time, rather than just being able to slap some hardware together. Each spacecraft is built for specific purposes, and each demands new engineering. The trials of a program don’t end at launch where, in particular for exploration, the time and challenge of the flight increase with distance.

As an example, there was a tremendous response recently to the New Horizons recent flyby of Pluto. The pictures and data being returned mesmerized pop culture, Twitter and the media. The mission seemed instantaneous… that is, except to those behind it. NASA green-lighted the mission in 2002, designed and built it in four years on shoestring budget, and launched in January of 2006 before spending nine years traveling thorough the vastness of space to bring those images to us. In this time, children were born, started walking and are now in high school, and the spacecraft flies on. The construction of the International Space Station, something I am proud to have contributed to, took thirteen years without even considering the years before of design, political debate and development.

So what is the key to spaceflight in the face of these challenges?


For all levels of engineering, from university to program management, successful people are those that just keep going regardless of what is thrown at them. Engineering is notoriously the hardest general category of college degrees with the dropout rate reported as high as 60%. But the real secret is not that the 40% that stayed in were all magically smarter, but they did have persistence. They showed up, they just kept trying and eventually made it. That skill translates to the work environment where they take on the question of “how?” and make it real. Making real machines, solving real problems and producing real products takes persistence. Every engineer has stories of failed designs or tests they had to redo. Picking up and fixing it is hallmark of engineering.

Using this persistence is necessary to face programs that stretch for years, missions that last decades, and will be required facing the challenges inherent in the Journey to Mars. There are no shortcuts ahead. There will be much debate on which vehicle, which mission, or which contract mechanism to use, but there is one ingredient required in any scenario: Persistence.

So I invite you to join us. Bring your energy, be fierce, be kind, but most of all, be persistent.

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