NASA engineers Andy Aylward and Keith Kienzle sing with colleagues and friends following the successful launch of a multinational research satellite from a Japanese launch facility .

NASA engineers Andy Aylward and Keith Kienzle sing with colleagues and friends following the successful launch of a multinational research satellite from a Japanese launch facility.

I thought last week's post was going to by my Japanese summation, but circumstance and experience are unstable sands.

After a monstrously intense, exciting, jam-packed week working with the NASA team tasked to launch the GPM satellite, I found myself with the same group about 30 miles north of the launch site in a ramshackle potter's barn. With dusty timbers, the occasional stray cobweb, and shelves lined with drying pottery, we sat on folding chairs and plastic crates listening to a bunch of musicians jam.

Who were these off-the-beaten-trail performers? Carnegie Hall is a looooong way from Tanegashima. Hosted by the owner of the barn--a local potter, master guitar player, and Nishinoomote resident--the musicians were his friends and a collection of NASA engineers. They were us.

Who knew?

Engineers are a surprisingly different breed than scientists. While both spend a lot of their working lives in "the sciences", they do not move through life in quite the same way. There's a pragmatism about engineers that can flatten their exterior personalities like a thick lacquer smoothing the texture of rough wood. Where scientists may present dreamier, more existential personalities that take absolutely nothing as resolved fact, engineers are all about deploying solutions to real, definable problems. A successful solution is one that works for an engineer, where for a scientist, a successful solution is one reached after evidence mounts high enough to cast a long shadow on competing ideas. The differences are nuanced but profound, and neither is better than the other.

With the mission ostensibly completed, and a period of sleep successfully earned, the team was not wont to contemplate their collective navels. Engineers are do-ers, and everyone had an itch to do something other than just wait for their airplanes home.

If you're a person who solves problems, whether those are engineering challenges or scientific puzzles, traditional arts or business challenges, there is an innate human need to create. It's a biological imperative. No doubt some of us have deeper, richer veins of this need than others; some won't survive a day without probing possibilities and recombinations of ideas, while others may be content to poke at the edges. But collectively? We put new ideas together, or things overall begin to fall apart. Some of the players showed surprising emotion in their music, expressions that did not always find easy ways out in other interactions. Certainly those expressions were not universal among all in the group; there is no such thing as an absolute attribute. But the enthusiasm in the room was infectious, and a surprisingly diverse assortment of people rose to sing at the open mic, or demonstrate that they had, in fact, spent more time in their lives than we might have otherwise known practicing guitar.

As I shot photos in the dark room, sang along with the group, wondered how I ever found myself in this impossible-to-predict space, one thought kept echoing. This is the team that not forty-eight hours previously had successfully delivered a billion dollar satellite into orbit!

In the jam session I felt much more at home than I did in the satellite testing area. I've spent thousands of hours in and around high-tech aerospace and scientific environments, so it wasn't as if I didn't know how to operate during the mission, but here in the potter's shed things resonated differently. I found myself among friends, among people who needed to express something that they did not get to express throughout most of their days. Certainly the ability to build and prepare a satellite is an extraordinarily creative act, and it's only with deep, intimate knowledge that an outsider begins to realize that even in the highly disciplined world of satellite design there is, in fact, room for improvisation, riffs on engineering goals like arpeggiated runs up the fret board.

But creative though it may be as a collective effort, aerospace engineering is not the same artistic endeavor as the traditional arts. There in the jam, surrounded by hand made pottery on rough hewn wooden shelves on ramshackle wooden walls, the team responsible for pushing humanity into the future solidified their legacy with me. In these highly technical people were sparks of poetry and song. Though we may have spoken profoundly different languages throughout most of our time together--and we really, truly spoke different languages--I had to smile at the commonalities. There are always things to share. As Paul Simon put it, "Here is my song for the asking."

--Michael Starobin

P.P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @michaelstarobin

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