In October 2021, PRA staff members participated in the “Back to School Challenge” to expand their knowledge and enhance their intellectual wellness. Staff were encouraged to learn something new outside of your program area, scope of expertise, or main interests.

“Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.” –John Dewey

While much of my focus is on improving the lives of my fellow service members, Veterans, and those who care for them, I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration. Like many of us who have looked up at the night sky and marveled at the expanse of the universe, space is the great unknown and ultimate “what if…”

Although the possibilities of space intrigue me, I know little about the actual work being done. To satisfy that curiosity, I watched a TED Talk by Interplanetary Navigator Jill Seubert titled, “How a Miniaturized Atomic Space Clock Could Revolutionize Space Exploration.” In her talk, Dr. Seubert explained how the amazing advances that we have made in space exploration—the Mars Rover, the two Voyager spacecraft that are currently thirteen billion miles away—are a result of mind-boggling advances in science and engineering. She also described the problems inherent in the “steering” of these intrepid explorers…it all has to be done from Earth, and if you’re ever tried to navigate from the backseat, you can imagine the difficulty of her task.

Person looking up at space

These advances in science and engineering demonstrate the importance of applying intellectual wellness to a wide range of problems. Defined as recognizing one’s creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills, the advances in space exploration would not be possible without applying intellectual creativity to seemingly insurmountable problems. Her talk specified how advances in the miniaturization of atomic clock technology will soon allow for autonomous navigation: self-driving spacecraft, where navigation is able to be done from the vehicle’s location in space rather than from Earth. The practice of designing and building such precise machinery, as Dr. Seubert describes, “is as much an art as it is a science and feat of engineering.”

As fascinating as the subject is, I also considered how Dr. Saubert’s insights can be applied to our own work. For our work to go far, what does it mean to go small and be extremely precise? How do we increase efficiency and clarity in our processes? How do we use existing technology to our advantage, and if no technology exists, how do we design or develop the next thing that gets us to where we need to go?

The work that we all do—whether that is improving lives or exploring space—is extremely important and applying creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems requires focus and precision to be done well.