Space Rocks and Work as Imagined

Only twelve people have ever walked on the moon. David R. Scott and James B. Irwin were number seven and eight, as part of Apollo 15.

This was the first Apollo mission that had a primary focus on advancing science as opposed to refining the ability to get there and back safely. They had experiments to conduct and samples to collect. One of the samples NASA scientists hoped to find was a special type of rock that would help to understand how and when the earth and moon were formed.

It was a piece of the moon’s primordial crust, a rock called an anorthosite. On earth, anorthosites are found in regions where they have been brought to the surface through movement of the tectonic plates, like volcanic or mountain. On the moon the mountainous regions are caused by the impact of meteors. Putting this together, NASA scientists theorised that the lunar highlands would be a likely place to find their special rock. But they had never been to the moon and the photos at the time didn’t provide that level of detail so the best they could do was guess.

Of course, you can’t exactly just land a lunar module in the middle of a mountain range. They had to make do with landing the lunar module near the lunar highlands. To get the astronauts to where they needed to be required transport in the form of the rover and enhanced spacesuit capability. Each of these new additions introduced enhanced capability as well as additional risk and training requirements for the mission.

Apollo 15 astronauts were able to spend more time on the moon’s surface than ever before, but they still had to stick within specific parameters relating to time and distance. There were also limitations on the quantity of samples they could bring back to earth. Its not like they could bring back every type of rock they saw (if you have taken a child to the beach, I’m sure you can relate to this). All of this to say, collecting a sample of special rock which scientists guessed might be there was not exactly a sure thing.

Now, astronauts in those days weren’t the diverse mix of professional backgrounds they are today. They were military test pilots, like Maverick and Goose. Men who were known to push the limits, both in terms of physicality and risk taking behaviour, not their scientific expertise. So to prepare for this mission, they went to geology boot camp. Astronauts always did some basic training in geology, but it was more extensive for this mission.

Out on one of their moonwalks they spotted a glimmer of white, suggesting they had found what they were looking for. You can watch the video footage of it below. And not a tiny fragment, a big chunky piece of rock weighing 270g. Sample 15415, or the genesis rock which it was later called by the press, was collected and brought back to earth where scientists found that it was more than 4 billion years old.

Some might have considered this finding as a lucky break. It turns out the region they were in was not exactly overflowing with anorthosites, unlike what they would encounter in their next Apollo 16 mission where they would find acres and acres of it. But not Leon Silver, their geology instructor. He spoke of their experience in finding this loose piece of rock within the crater:

“And here’s a loose piece. Remember, we’re on the rim of the biggest crater on the Moon…and here is this great mountain range thrown up during that impact. It was thrown up to heights that we can’t match on Earth. And who knows where that piece came from? Maybe it didn’t come from there at all. Maybe some other impact threw another piece, because the Moon’s surface has been impacted again and again and again, and things have been redistributed over and over again. But it was an exciting piece, and again, they knew what an anorthosite looked like.”

The astronauts didn’t find the specimen because the NASA scientists were spot on with their estimation. Nor did they find it because they were taught how to follow a rock collecting protocol in their geology training. They found what they were looking for because, in Silver’s words,

“it was the coming together of developing the technical capabilities, preparing men to be explorers as well as many, many other things”.

They learned about how these types of rocks formed, what context they were found in and how to spot them “in the wild” going on numerous site visits to practice on earth. When faced with a new environment, they adapted to it and applied the principles of geological science to the lunar landscape. They were technically proficient, well equipped, and had the autonomy to make independent judgements about how best to proceed.

Being a healthcare provider might not be as glamourous as being an astronaut, but there are some similarities. We have our own NASA scientists that set the parameters for work as imagined. The policy, the remuneration models, the protocols, procedures and guidelines. Many, many examples of people focusing on work as imagined. This work as imagined may be well informed and well intended, but at the end of the day they are a best guess of what we may or may not face when we’re on the ground, delivering patient care. We can expect there to be a gap between work as imagined and work as done.

If you’re reading this, you know that being effective in your work as a healthcare provider involves more than just following protocols. Because you experience it every day. You seek to understand the situation in front of you and read the context. You recognise and respond to risks. You apply your knowledge and creatively problem solve. You combine technical capability with empathy and professionalism to provide people with the care that they require.

We might not be able to change the system, but we can equip ourselves and others to be well-rounded healthcare professionals who care about delivering person-centred care. We don’t need a guideline to get started, or to help train others to do the same.

If you want to learn more about how healthcare systems can be designed to enable the humans within it to perform more effectively than one focused on top-down control, check out the presentation at The Fallacies of Work as Imagined