The All-Star Team
After receiving my Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Yale University, I arrived at Caltech as a research fellow placed in charge of a research project to build a detector system for an airborne observatory. Our mission was to identify the process by which stars and galaxies form. I was working with some of the best technicians, grad students, and fellow academicians to build a system that would exceed the performance levels of current methods, and to see how far we could push the fundamental limits of physics.
With more sweat than genius, the system worked as designed after a few months. We took our equipment to an airbase in Hawaii, which had an airborne observatory in a reconfigured military aircraft. The aircraft had a telescope dish on board and a four-foot hole in the fuselage, which would become exposed during observations. Our team was limited to three days and three flights to get the data we needed - if we failed, our next opportunity was at least another year away.
Day one - shortly after take off, our team quickly looked for a very small spot around Orion in the night sky. The crew (used to working for NASA) informed us that there was a problem with their guidance system and we would not be able to observe on this flight. We returned to base extremely disappointed, as we had just wasted one of our three chances. Day two - tensions mounted as we took off, our eyes focused on the flight crew and their equipment (we assumed that our equipment was always in order). As we started to take data, our equipment failed. A sobering experience for a bunch of academic types not used to failure. We returned to base, knowing that we had one day to figure out how to work well as a team. The chemistry transformed quickly as everyone focused on their piece of the project, trusted others to do the same, and helped each other to get the job done. Day three - we were tense, but ready, as we took off on our third and final flight. Everything went according to plan. We had gathered enough data to confirm the existence of complex molecules on the nebula halfway through the flight.
The lessons learned on those flights are never far from mind - being driven can lure you into thinking that if you are very smart and work hard you can get anything done. In reality, our destiny often rests on how well we work as a team.