How to be Great

How to be Great

Through my career as a scientist, not only has the science itself provided validation for the Christian faith, but also life’s “little” lessons while doing science.

Not long after the Galileo spacecraft began its long voyage to Jupiter in 1989, the controllers determined it would be an opportune time to test its large umbrella-like antenna. When they tried to open it up, several of the spokes refused to expand, leaving the antenna about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane. Following numerous attempts to break it free, NASA commissioned a “tiger team” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to investigate all possible ways in which the mission could be recovered. If nothing was done, the data transmission rate would be limited to about 10 bits per second at Jupiter, far too slow to accomplish most of the mission goals.

The final recommendations of that team included development of antenna arraying, where several antennas on the ground could simultaneously track the Galileo spacecraft and coherently add the signals together to obtain increased signal-gathering power. This development became the task of my group at JPL, a project that required all of the time of some 25 engineers, programmers, and scientists for about three years to complete. It challenged my team-building skills under conditions that were very stressful due to the time constraint of Galileo’s encounter with Jupiter.

In the gospels, Jesus says more than once that if you want to be great, you must become a servant. I really wanted my group to be successful in performing the arraying development, so I felt compelled to make every effort to practice this principle. Success requires the team players to “jump in” and do what it takes to get the job done. The team leader leads best by being an example. He or she should have no special privileges.

To make a long story short, I had the opportunity to fully demonstrate my willingness to be a servant leader. If there was a “dirty” job to be done, I chose to be the first to do it, even when it meant cleaning up a toilet spill. If something needed to be bought, on occasion I would spend my own money to get it in order to save time. I discovered that others will follow the example of a willing leader and won’t complain when the going gets difficult. The example of other leaders in my life helped me to see that the leader’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the team has the resources and help it needs to accomplish the task. Then success comes naturally.

There is no question in my mind that God blessed our effort and gave us the success we desired. I remember one time when we met a particular milestone with flying colors, that one of my engineers remarked that “we were so successful, there must be a God in heaven looking out for us.” This comment came from a person having no particular belief in God.

If you’ve kept abreast of the Galileo mission, you’ll know our efforts were wildly successful. Our antenna-arraying capability, together with three other modifications to the spacecraft software and other ground systems, led to an improvement of the communications system of up to a factor of 100 in data rate. All of the major goals of the mission were accomplished in the following years. And my team had the privilege of receiving special commendation for our part in this achievement. We were so successful with antenna arraying that we were given the task of expanding this capability for use in all missions.

This personal experience is no earthshaking argument for the Christian faith, but it does substantiate a biblical principle on healthy human interaction and how it promotes human flourishing.