Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Life-Altering Pursuits

There are these days when I look back and think about all the things that have happened to me over the last two years that growing up in India, I couldn't ever imagine happening to me. Back in high school, going to MIT or Stanford or Oxford was a playful joke between all of us who were breaking our backs and (perhaps needlessly, in hindsight) giving up the joy of being seventeen over the rat race to get into IIT. The fact that that's not a joke anymore gives me a lot of joy every time I think about it. Every now and then, there comes an opportunity to embark on a potentially life-altering pursuit. Only, I didn't know I'd be getting so many in such a short span of time. The going has been tough, but it surely has not been without its rewards. So this post is primarily a reflection that concludes with a sense of wonder and gratitude. 

The first three months of this year have probably been the most eventful I've had at Stanford; March, perhaps the month with least sleep. There were points of time in the last three months that I just had to sit up and look around to see the grand scale of the things I was getting myself immersed in. Yet,  two days beyond the end of those three months I have to say that the experience was wonderful. 

First, there was PEMDAS-1. Our rocket was in its build phase these last three months. Twelve of us poured our heart and soul into raising the 13-foot behemoth and sending him on his way to 45000 feet. As the quarter progressed, afternoons blended into evenings; by the end, evenings were blending into mornings after. There was the igniter test that swallowed my birthday whole (no regrets). There was the ground test that swallowed two-thirds of a long weekend. Then there was launch week, when no one got any sleep. Everyone sacrificed their daily lives for us to become the first team in four years of the class to have made it to launch- perhaps the first ever to have done so within 6 months from the start. Sharing all-nighters with people is probably a nerd's best way to bond with other nerds. The all-nighters pulled together had a big role to play in turning us into a well-oiled machine. The day of the launch came by; only that it didn't go as we planned, or as we deserved. We stood under the bunker and helplessly watched months of hard work catch fire as the rocket stood where it was, in submission to the flames below. Hearts were broken, days were ruined, and we returned disappointed, dissatisfied and looking for a second shot. Hopefully, we will be able to rebuild everything that is needed and try again in the next few months. If there's one thing I know, I worked with a remarkable set of people, that you must be very fortunate to have worked with. My knowledge grew by leaps and bounds in the few months I spent working on that project. Even the failure taught us a few things about doing things right.

I was back from my rocket launch trip all of five days, when I had to leave to embark on the second of my life-altering pursuits- the Caltech Space Challenge with Team Voyager. This would be a much shorter venture, but no less intense. When I first met my fellow participants, my first feeling was one of panic- "How am I ever going to be good enough for this team?". The resumes were stellar, and the excitement was palpable. For the next five days, we sank over twelve to fourteen hours a day in trying to conceptually design a manned mission to a Martian moon. Once again, all-nighters served to unite what began as a somewhat disjointed set of very strong-minded and motivated strangers. There were surprise treats along the way. On day 3, I the breakfast table abuzz (no pun intended) with the words "Buzz Aldrin" occasionally finding their way through. Buzz Aldrin had decided to pay us a visit. That day went on to become one of the best days I've had in a long time. At night, I coincidentally landed up on the same table as him, and sat and listened as he shared gems from his treasure trove of stories. Later that night, as I headed back to the hotel exhausted yet exhilarated from a long day, I  remembered the occasion about year ago when I had the opportunity to have a 30 second long conversation with Neil Armstrong. The feeling of gratitude and amazement that I felt then, is the same feeling that I write this post with. If anyone would've told ten-year-old me, growing up in New Delhi that I'd get to meet the first two men who had walked on the moon, I would have laughed at them in disbelief. Then again, it happened; whether I believe it or not. Team Voyager's quest ended on a different note compared to PEMDAS-1. On the final night, in the presence of bigwigs of the aerospace industry, we were declared the winners of the challenge. 

I walked away from these three months physically tired, but mentally enriched. I walked away with a new set of friends who are remarkable in every way- all of us tied together by bonds of sleep deprivation. I have slower days ahead, which is a welcome relief from how busy life has been over the last few weeks; but a part of me probably misses the excitement of working towards a common goal with a set of like-minded people. Some of the members of the PEMDAS team have graduated and moved on to bigger things in life, but they have promised to return to watch PEMDAS-2 take to the skies, if that were to happen. Members of Team Voyager are back to pursuing their daily lives and hopefully continue to do well. As for me, I'm thankful that I got the opportunity to come to Stanford, and I'm amazed at all the wonderful people and experiences that being here has brought me.

Team PEMDAS -1 

Team Voyager