December 13th, 2019
written for plusacumen.org
One of the most remarkable events in human history occurred on a quiet Saturday in August 2012.
No one celebrated.
No one served witness.
No one received credit.
It’s unlikely this milestone would have taken place—at least not in the beautiful way it did— if not for the audacity and disobedience of a few stubborn dreamers.
In 1961, a mathematician, Michael Minovitch, joined NASA as an intern. After begging his boss for additional planetary data and time on NASA’s supercomputer, Michael ran simulations of an algorithm he wrote in his spare time that successfully cracked a 300-year-old maths mystery called the ‘3 Bodies Problem’ — a problem Sir Isaac Newton had failed to solve.
No one seemed to notice what Michael had done.
Instead of a celebration, he lost his allotted time on the computer.
He drew hundreds of graphs by hand using his groundbreaking algorithm to plot out possible flight trajectories through our solar system.
Still, no one cared.
Three years later, Gary Flandro, another intern, who was looking through Michael’s graphs, spotted what everyone else had overlooked. In 12 years, the solar system was going to align in such a way that a trip across it would be realistic using the technology of the time. If the window was missed, humanity would wait another 175 years.
Fast forward a bit.
NASA finally realizes what Michael had done and, with slight allowances made for storytelling, two things happened:
NASA excitedly rushed to plan a “Grand Tour” across the solar system
US Congress immediately responded by canceling a large portion of NASA’s funding. NASA retained just enough to visit two planets over five years—Jupiter & Saturn. No more.
However, NASA’s engineers decided they were not going to settle for two measly planets or five short years. Quietly and without permission, they kept planning their Grand Tour.
To realize their dream while on a budget, the spacecrafts that would become Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were allotted the total computational power equivalent to a modern-day car’s key fob and much of their protection was constructed out of store-bought aluminium foil.
Fast forward again.
We flew by moons, Saturn's rings, a massive frozen ocean and a hurricane so large that you could fit multiple Earths inside of it. We saw lightning strikes the size of continents, active volcanoes, geysers, and came so close to Neptune’s cloud tops that scientists feared we may lose the spacecraft in the atmosphere.
Then, on that uncelebrated day in August 2012, Voyager 1, nearly 30 years past its “expiration date”, wrapped in store-bought aluminum foil, and flying on a trajectory hand-drawn by an ignored intern became the first human-made object to burst out of the bounds of our solar system and into interstellar space.
It’s a beautiful and unequivocally human story.
Don't discard your remarkable ideas just because they are hand-drawn.
Don’t wait for permission, a round of applause or credit. They’re unlikely to come.
Do, however, keep pushing. Who knows how long humanity will need wait for another opportunity if you don’t start or choose to give up.