They Eat a Lot of Peanuts in NASA

Published: Dec 13 , 2012
Author: Robin Copland

They eat a lot of peanuts in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a landing on Mars approaches.  It is an old tradition that dates back to 31 July 1964 when Ranger 7, an unmanned space probe was due to approach the planet, take a few pictures on the way down, then crash onto the surface at breakneck speed.  Bear in mind that only a year or two previously, President Kennedy had targeted the USA with landing men on the moon, then returning them safely to Earth by the end of that decade.  You would have thought, would you not, that crashing onto Mars would have been well within the wit and capability of the good folks at NASA; sadly not.  Rangers 1 through 6 had failed miserably in their various attempts to crash on the planet and Ranger 7 was their last shot at glory.

It is interesting to see how a clear unambiguous goal galvanised a nation and an organisation to deliver.  Kennedy was assassinated as we know on 22 November 1963, but his vision lived on and President Nixon, a Republican who paradoxically had fought and lost the 1960 election to Kennedy, was able to bask in the successful achievement of his dead predecessor's dream.

Compare the NASA of the nineteen sixties where even the toilet attendants saw themselves as people helping to put men on the moon, to the NASA of the eighties, nineties and noughties.  At best, the organisation had woolly objectives - often subject to changing budgets that reflected the short-term political needs of the day.  Accidents - some tragically fatal - seemed to dog the shuttle programme and competitors began to outstrip their achievements in space.  There seemed to be no leadership; no overarching grand ambition; no clear objectives.

This now seems to have changed.  President Obama talks openly of getting people to Mars by the 2030s; Curiosity, far from killing the cat, is stretching her exploratory legs and we are already seeing pictures of a red desert on our TV screens - but not just any red desert; this red desert is on the surface of Mars.  Other unmanned probes are winging their ways through the solar system to explore variously the moon, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, the asteroid Ceres and the interstellar void between the planets.  NASA, it seems, has its mojo back.  NASA is on a mission - or rather a lot of missions.  NASA is being driven towards a series of different goals and objectives.

Negotiators should think long and hard about the lessons to be learned from all of this and the clearest one is perhaps the simplest.  If you have not prepared a clearly-defined and prioritised list of objectives before you go into a negotiation, then you have prepared to fail.

Oh.  And the nuts in the Jet Propulsion Lab?  It turned out that one of the controllers in the laboratory had been chewing nuts as Ranger 7 approached and successfully crashed onto Mars.  The rest of them decided that this must have been the secret, so nuts it has been ever since!

Robin Copland, Partner

 


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