A funny thing happened to me on the way to the “internets” some weeks ago. I, on some great fluke of luck, stumbled upon a lottery to participate in a cross-site NASA event sponsored by NASA Social to celebrate 50 years of NASA and the upcoming landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known more affectionately as Curiosity. I have never bought a lottery ticket as I always know the odds are stacked; but, on this one I thought the worst thing was regretting not putting my name in the proverbial hat. Lo and behold, some weeks later I received an email letting me know I was selected. Flabbergasted is the best word to describe my reaction. And so yesterday I spent today (August 3, 2012) on-site at Johnson Space Center down in Houston, Texas to get some behind-the-scenes access along with participate in a news briefing televised on NASA TV.
On my flight down to Houston two nights prior I relaxed to read the history of Queen’s Brian May in one of my favorite publications: Astronomy.com. Many know that Queen holds a special place in me, but few know it has been a staple of my music since I simultaneously discovered David Bowie on “Life on Mars” and Queen on “Fat-bottomed Girl” on a dubbed cassette; this all way back just as puberty struck. And of course, as a bona fide astro-geek since even before this I was (and still am) naturally enamored with songs like May’s “’39” about space travel, and Queen’s soundtrack to the 80’s version of Flash Gordon. What many people may not know is that Brian May has become a hero to me (again) for his return to Imperial College to finish his PhD in astronomy, a body of research on Zodiac light that he left incomplete for some 30 years while he globe-trotted with Freddie Mercury et al. as one of the world’s recognized masters of rock guitar.
In reading the article about Brian May, the world-recognized-guitarist-(re)turned-astronomer, I remember when it all first began with my love of astronomy. I was barely past my fifth birthday when Voyager II arrived at Jupiter. It was then when images starting coming back that I got a taste of the infinite, and I have been hooked ever since. Before the internet and the now seemingly boundless ocean of rich media and richer information I would write letters to NASA to share with them my love of astronomy and space exploration, and in return they would return to me and my then ten-year-old mind unbelievably beautiful glossy images of spacecraft and even more priceless brochures filled to the brim with intoxicating details of their many programs. And so concomitant to Voyager II helping frame in pictures a bit more of humanity’s place in the universe, my own universe expanded to something greater than myself.
As early as middle school I would, unbeknownst to my parents, grab a ride on a Greyhound to ride into Syracuse University to clandestinely visit their libraries to read up on astronomy and physics. So deep was my convictions that I went as far as declaring since the age of ten that I would one day work Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California after I got a PhD in orbital mechanics. I was on-track with this life-plan till I arrived at Purdue University where a combination of the previous year in Japan along with a recalcitrant aerospace engineering department steered me to University at Buffalo where I was free to pursue Japanese alongside my aerospace engineering studies. The rest is history, as it is oft writ. I entered Boeing as an aerospace engineer, flirted with Japanese interpretation for a year before eventually settling on software engineering and now program management. As time flowed forward my steps seemed logical and congruent, but there is a part of me that wonders “what if”. What if I had stayed the path and completed by PhD at University of Washington? Where might I be now?
It is a thought that has more merit than merely an idle exercise in speculative reminiscing. To place this in a bit of recently acquired perspective let me first comment that the common advice proffered to aspiring university applicants—Do something you are good at—is patently horrible advise. This tends to manifest itself to those students good at math (or Math, even) who are told they should join the ranks of engineering. But even more subtle and more sublimely misleading to a person of my ilk as a (too?) deeply introspective person may be to also tell a person to do what they are passionate about as this may lead to an (overly) self-engrossed person. This is inarguably nearly as wrong-headed, and pursuing my passions has not helped me garner a level of satisfaction that I once esteemed it would. Something to the equation has been missing, but what? Recently while waiting for my morning commuter bus to arrive another bus came to the bus stop. On its side was a simple slogan for local university: Do something you value.1 It may have been the choice of word value over what I had expected, passion, that reverberated and then resonated with me, but hidden in this simplest change of words is something that best frames my most recent rumination on the course and direction of my life.
I stepped off the path of my PhD in computational (plasma) physics because I had found something as equally compelling as uncovering and exploring the mysteries of our physical world. It was a path I was and still do (in a latent way) value and am passionate about: acting as a Japanese-US liaison. That path took me first to Boeing as an aerospace engineer, then as Japanese interpreter at Boeing helping Shingijutsu bring lean concepts to our facilities, and next when it seemed Boeing did not need a cowboy-wearing, Japanese speaking aerospace engineer Yank (how surprising, don’t you think?) I then went back to school to retool myself as a software engineering where I thought my Japanese language skills could be better leveraged. It was then that I moved to Amazon.com and slowly transitioned into technical program management before moving to Microsoft where I now work on Xbox. Certainly my path has been intellectually stimulating and at times even gratifying, but it does not answer the deeper purpose of engineering to me: engineers do not solve technical problems, but instead solve human problems using technical means. That is an arguably overly lofty and even hoity-toity definition I have clasped onto the lapel of my profession of choice, engineering; but, I do not think my younger self really missed the mark with it, either. In my love of the simplest of taxonomies, the dichotomy, I have come to appreciate I inwardly do what I am passionate about and want to outwardly engage in things I value.
So what do I value? That is the very question I am deeply engaged in trying to uncover an answer to. In the past year my pilgrimage to Mauna Kea to see the telescopes, my multi-day trip to Lowell Observatory, and now day at Johnson Space Center are all about trying to find clues and even reclaim something I believe I let get eclipsed by the seeming realities of life. Maybe it is just an adult lavishing attention and extragavance to his inner-child, but I have glimpsed the hazy shape of a response to this query in this past year. And I believe more firmly my path is starting to find itself meandering back to something deeper than where I find myself presently. I do not know its exact shape of turns ahead nor where I will find myself in months and years to come, but my feet ever move forward. And that is maybe enough for now; for now, mind you.
I am curious to see where I will eventually land, till then there is Mars and Curiosity.
Special Post Script : A very special and warm thanks to NASA Social who invited me to participate yesterday. They are the new, more externally facing connection of NASA, replacing from childhood those mass-produced glossy pictures and jazzy brochures with the more intimate voices of real people of NASA. People who, like so many of us, get excited at the merest mention of NASA and its grand legacy of 50 years of exploration and discovery. Thank you.
1 Actually, it read “What do you value? Create a healthier world with Bastyr University” but this is my story so I am redacting it to fit. *sticks tongue out*