My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My first takeaway from “The Right Kind of Crazy” by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatever is holding you back.
Such is the brash but ultimately likable sentiment of Dr. Steltzner’s book, co-written with William Patrick. When his team successfully landed NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, Steltzner oversaw arguably the most revered landing since Apollo 11 reached the surface of the Moon. To understand this incredible engineering feat, you should watch the viral NASA video known as the “Seven Minutes of Terror.”
Curiosity’s landing captivated society. People stayed up late to watch live coverage in Times Square. Space enthusiasts like myself followed Twitter feeds on smartphones grasped in sweaty palms. The next day, A-list comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert featured the landing on their hit Comedy Central shows. Curiosity’s landing incited a cultural crush. Society realized just how colorful, cool, and even sexy, NASA could be. However, Steltzner’s book is not a wistful look back, nor is it an especially accessible primer for newcomers.
As the full title aptly states, the book is, “A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation.” With a glaring lack of accompanying images, the co-writers impart the wisdom and perspective Steltzner gained over years of intensive trial-and-error mission development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The Right Kind of Crazy” doles out thoughtful anecdotes. Reflections and takeaways come fast and furious. Sometimes the writing exhibits a hasty, back-of-the-envelope quality. This book is not an immaculately laid out management treatise. If it were, the work wouldn’t be so very … Steltzner.
Steltzner brings a crooner’s magnetism to his thought leadership. Though often likened to Elvis, he shows a jazzy Sinatra side as well. In fact, Steltzner drops a lot of musical names and metaphors throughout “The Right Kind of Crazy.” Occasionally I would pause my reading and jump on YouTube to sample the tunes he referenced. The book, like its author, also exudes a sports car driver’s swagger.
This brings us back to this review’s opening. In the book’s first chapter, Steltzner recounts a last-minute software glitch that might have led to mission failure. He sets up a “tiger team” to troubleshoot the problem—or as he puts it, “get it un-f***ed-up if possible.” Later in the same paragraph, this team assembles to have a “come-to-Jesus session.”
It is not the last time Steltzner mixes culture, religion, and profanity to get his points across. This is not reckless communication, even if it is rather loose tongued. With this approach, Steltzner drives to the core of the book’s ethos: engineering and exploration can be good, paradoxically non-destructive, battles. He explains this after referencing another engineer at JPL who swore in a heated intra-staff discussion fueled by competing ideas.
“To many readers that may not seem like very strong language, but for me, coming from an environment where I barely met the people I was working with and everything was filtered through others, this sounded like war. It was the kind of war I wanted to be a part of.”
Elsewhere, Steltzner describes his back and forth with colleagues as punch and counterpunch, like boxers sparring in preparation for the championship bout. Fighting is a recurring motif in the book. Also recurring, quite compatibly, is the notion of engineering displaying sexy, even naughty aspects. “All engineers have lust for designs we want to see realized…” Steltzner explains in a chapter entitled “Puzzle Pieces.”
Sometimes undercutting Steltzner’s noble goals are the complex structures at JPL—both mechanical and organizational. Such complexity forces the authors to do a lot of name dropping, coupled with copious shoptalk. Sometimes it runs together. Yet, the cumulative effect is to reveal the steely beauty of custom spacecraft held together by old-school nuts and bolts. In close-quarters fashion, the book acquaints readers with passionate scientists and engineers, as well as their methodically devised robotic love children.
Steltzner’s brand of crazy rightly offsets the stereotypical notion of NASA personnel as stodgy guys in lab coats. Such a style may challenge the comfort zones of taxpayers, as well as old guard types at NASA. Nevertheless, if the incredible cultural impact of the Curiosity rover’s landing proves lasting, “The Right Kind of Crazy” may come to define 21st Century space exploration.