People who run marathons, scientists who live at the South Pole in winter, and even the firefighters in the Gila, have something in common. They have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to each other. Volunteering to be in a closed, hostile environment for months at a time is something International Space Station (ISS) astronauts and scientists who live at the South Pole have in common. When people are in an environment where they are allowed to be self-directed, they thrive. The environment does not have to be comfortable.
Regardless of the difficulty of the task, what is it that motivates us to seek challenge? Daniel H. Pink, in his book “Drive”, discusses the importance providing the environment for people to become better at something that matters to them. It also fulfills a natural desire to contribute to a higher purpose. Pink uses the term “Goldilocks tasks” to describe those tasks which are neither overly difficult nor overly simple – these tasks allow us to extend ourselves and to develop skills. The risk of providing tasks that fall short of our capabilities is boring and tasks that are beyond our capabilities produce anxiety. There is the Goldilocks spot, where the task is neither too easy nor too difficult, it is just right. This spot allows us to develop mastery and it is highly motivating. What is too much for some is just right for others.
Last week, Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceX, accomplished what no other private aerospace company has done. They designed and built their own launcher, the Falcon 9, and docked their own space capsule, The Dragon, with the International Space Station. It is part of NASA’s Commercial Cargo Development program started in 2008. As of May 22, 2012, we live in an era where private citizens will be able to live and work in space if they choose.
Over the past few days I have been listening to and watching the news releases from SpaceX and NASA as the launch and docking progressed. Listening to Elon Musk describe the accomplishment I understood, this is a Goldilocks moment for him. Not only has he accomplished what no other aerospace company has, he is looking to increase the challenge for himself and his company. He will soon begin the process of getting the Dragon capsule certified to carry humans to the ISS and eventually to commercial space stations. He and Robert Bigelow announced last month, they have signed an agreement to launch Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats to low earth orbit in 2015.
Why are we going to space? Why do people fight the fire in the Gila, why do people volunteer to keep the scientists alive at the South Pole? Humans are hard to figure out. Some students in our schools are developing mastery at chess, or playing the violin, some are mastering fire fighting.
When the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, spoke at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in 2007, he described two things that motivated him. He wanted to re-start the launch industry in our country, and he wanted to impact humanity on the geologic scale.
How hard those tasks seemed to me at the time. How can anyone set those challenges up for himself? He had already co-founded PayPal, sold it and was building his own rocket manufacturing plant. He was thirty five at the time. Yet, I know thousands of people in Las Cruces are developing mastery possibly writing plays or perfecting a new chile at NMSU.
Last Saturday, NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo manager Alan Lindenmoyer described his first encounter with Elon. He knew Elon had a conviction, that he and SpaceX were committed to do what it took to deliver access to space for the United States. NASA discovered the Goldilocks tasks working with SpaceX. They did not set too many requirements, nor did they back away from holding the company accountable. NASA paid for results only.
There is great purpose at work here. The United States will soon have the ability to once again deliver and return astronauts safely from space. There are many hostile environments right here on earth. We still can’t get people who winterover off the ice at the Amundesen-Scott South Pole Station, America’s scientific research station at the South Pole. Aviation fuel turns to a gel at 60 degrees below zero. Yet, the Polie’s volunteer to return year after year. The work, the connection to each other and the challenge of mastering living in total isolation is just right for them.