NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Mars on September 21st. While not deploying a lander (so fewer variables at play), it is still a significant undertaking to ensure it achieves orbital insertion. In other words, if it screws up, MAVEN flies right past Mars and wanders the solar system, with no way back. Right now, it is at cruise speed, so it is slowing itself down and adjusting course to make sure it 1) is captured by Martian gravity and 2) doesn’t crash right into it.
So really, there’s one chance to get it right.
The planning has been in place since before it launched. Programming on the spacecraft is so good that today (September 15th) there was a planned course correction, but they skipped it because, in NASA’s words, “MAVEN is right on track.” Can you imagine the math involved in flying something millions of miles away (further than we are from the sun) to ensure it is within a few miles (at most) upon arrival? It’s as if you started driving from New York, closed your eyes, and expected to arrive in Los Angeles with just a few second glances along the journey. This focus on precision and celebration of thought is part of why I’ve always been an enormous supporter of NASA. Exploration of the unknown isn’t too shabby, either.
Flying to Mars isn’t sufficient to inspire? That’s fine. In 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft left Earth on a journey to Pluto. When it launched, iPhones were only a rumor and Pluto was still a planet! It’s not there yet, but will pass by next summer. To top it off, New Horizons isn’t just going to Pluto, then calling it quits. While in a region of space rarely-explored, NASA will add a second rendezvous at another small planetary body following the Pluto system. So small Hubble is still searching the sky; they don’t even know where to turn! Using our previous example, it’s as if that car didn’t just arrive in LA, but parallel parked in a specific space, then left for Seattle, picking its favorite food truck to visit along the way (and the truck moves constantly).
In reality, these examples are far simpler than what has been done for decades in space exploration. The degree of precision is such that simple comparisons just don’t equate. I only hope it gives you some idea of how important planning is to the success of these missions.
And that also applies to your operations. Plan ahead to ensure a smooth ride, and during the journey, make scheduled tweaks if necessary to make sure you’re still going in the direction desired. Of course, you have one giant advantage: Your credit union isn’t flying millions of miles away from you!
Though sometimes it might feel that way. When it does, just think of all the spacecraft on their huge journeys through our solar system, and remember each knows exactly where it is going.