Red Planet Lights the Way for IT Teams

By eweek  |  Posted 2002-05-13

Even after 30 years of using tiny computers, I can still be impressed by the work that they make possible for tiny teams with tiny budgets. When university students enter domains that used to be owned by superpowers, we should take a moment to marvel at the tools that enable such things.

I have the honor of being a charter member of The Mars Society (, the group that believes we should have at least one backup planet. As part of the societys Translife Initiative, students at three universities—MIT, the University of Washington and Australias University of Queensland—are planning the first private biological space mission, the Mars Gravity Biosatellite ( Launching in 2005, it will yield the first data ever produced on birth and development of mammals in Mars-level gravity (which is three-eighths that of Earth).

Ive followed the projects progress so far, watching the students develop mathematical models for design trade-off studies; produce 3-D visualizations of spacecraft configuration; and collaborate by e-mail with team members and advisers across more than a dozen time zones. Theyre working around-the-clock on everything from metabolic rates of experimental animals to artwork and language for sponsorship proposals. (If you have a spare $10 million, send it along.)

Whether or not you care about going to Mars, any enterprise IT builder can learn from this projects example. First, the work is moving at breakneck speed because the people involved believe they can make a difference. Though debate is sometimes cut off by the need to move forward, theres no one whos not being heard, and the level of effort rises to match that opportunity.

Second, the project is technology-agnostic: Mission objectives, not preconceived ideas, are clearly in control, albeit with a healthy dose of pragmatism in areas such as the choice of the launch vehicle. (There are only so many places where you can get a big, cheap rocket.)

Third, this says a lot about the role of team building in technical efforts. Are you still sending people to classes just to learn skills? If you want to get out of the gravity well of doing business as usual, your people must also be team players.

Or do you feel like one of the laboratory mice? Tell me at

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