Today, NASA landed an object the size of a car on Mars.
And then got it to send pictures back to Earth.
Those pictures appeared in my twitter stream this morning and I’m still struggling to get my head around such a remarkable achievement.
This amazing reality was once a concept played out in an episode of the romantic American political TV series, the West Wing. This saw the President and his staff building up to the exciting and imminent prospect of images being projected from Mars into classrooms full of children. It’s an episode about inspiration. Sadly, unlike NASA’s success today, in the TV series it doesn’t work. They lose contact with the satellite equipment and are unable to learn anything from it. After all that effort, the supposed true aim was lost.
As I listened in awe to the radio reports of NASA’s achievement this morning it took me right back to that television episode. And not only that, but the theme of failure and achievement and how the two can exist so painfully closely together, brought back the emotional scenes following Saturday morning’s Olympic rowing final. Zack Purchase and Mark Hunter were devastated by the perceived ‘failure’ at achieving silver. These men had won gold four years earlier and second place just wasn’t good enough for them. They were distraught at being beaten and were physically and emotionally exhausted. And, what followed was the moment in these wonderful Games that will probably stay with me longer than the staggering achievements in the stadium that night.
The rowers had to be carried out of their boat. They had given everything. They couldn’t walk, they could barely speak and then they were sorry for not having achieved their aim. Sorry for letting people down. But as their friend, Steve Redgrave, pulled them out of the boat, they were scooped up by the people they felt they had let down, and embraced wholeheartedly for their effort. The interviewer, John Inverdale was seconds from breaking down as he interviewed them (see 1hour 20mins into this iplayer film). I was in bits watching it. And I challenge anybody who saw that interview not to see these two men as anything other than heroes.
This brings me back to that West Wing episode. For those who aren’t familiar with it, despite their failure to beam pictures from Mars into children’s classrooms, the characters point out that there is still great value in talking to children about the importance of trying and just missing what you aim for. That sending a satellite to another planet doesn’t come without risk. The same goes for aiming for gold – you certainly don’t win an Olympic medal without leaving every part of yourself out on the track.
To bring this back down to earth (!) I want to relate it to the young people I met last week in Tottenham, as part of a programme we were researching for the Prince’s Trust. Young people out of work, many with a range of challenging circumstances, were given a week to make a film. They were thrown in at the deep end, and through the support of a brilliant programme they had the opportunity to try new experiences – to experiment with some real equipment and have a go at something. And they were supported through a process that meant that by the end of the week, these young people had conceived, filmed, edited and created a film that was shown in the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square. One of them, a young man with Asperger’s, was amazed that his film was up on the screen. To him, it was as big an achievement as sending a satellite to Mars or winning gold at the Olympics.
But this challenge to try things is only the start. Yes we need to inspire, to encourage people to believe, but then we need to encourage them to do more and to keep trying (and possibly failing) to reach Mars. Because whether it’s sports, astrophysics, film making or anything we want to succeed in, we all need a little inspiration and a little support. And we need to invest our energies in both.
So be it politicians wanting to increase participation in sports in the UK, or debates about investment in the space programme in the US, or the Prince’s Trust thinking about how to harness the wonder of the young people I met the week after their course had finished who are now back at home wondering what to do next with their lives: let’s not forget what does come next. Let’s focus on creating a culture where people are supported to try, to sometimes fail, and to find heart in the process rather than sorrow.
As the wonderful Beckett says: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’