How NASA Engineers Helped Me Become a Better Jewish Parent

December 16, 2022Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

For someone who suffers from motion sickness when scrolling rapidly on a computer screen, I'm not the most obvious space travel enthusiast. Yet "Good Night Oppy," a documentary streaming on Amazon Prime about the two robotic rovers that NASA sent to Mars in 2003, grabbed me by the heart. The robots, "Spirit" and "Opportunity" (aka "Oppy"), were designed to operate for three months, traversing the craterous and stormy surface of Mars. Instead, pulling their own twist on the Hanukkah miracle, they lasted for six and 15 years, respectively.

What I did not expect to experience from this movie was a potent lesson in parenting from NASA engineers. Of course, robots are not children, but the engineers take on parental roles, as they dedicate themselves to the welfare of these creations. They don't set out to anthropomorphize the machines, but cameras work best when placed high up (like eyes) on the robots, and the human body becomes a natural template for the robots to operate at maximum efficiency. Even though the robots are identical twins, they display differences in their problem solving and learning styles. The engineers accept that even when endowed with identical hardware, machines and people are individuals. It never hurts for a parent to be reminded of the need to celebrate children for their unique and quirky spirits.

At one point in the mission to explore Mars's vast craters, one of the robots confronts a treacherous maze of lethal boulders. The engineers attempt to assist the robot in navigating remotely, but ultimately take a leap of faith and command the robot to utilize its own computer on auto-pilot to handle the rocks. The engineer concedes that the robot can see the rocks better than she can, and reluctantly surrenders her oversight. In Jewish mysticism, there is a concept known as tzimtzum (or divine contraction), when God pulls back from intervening in the act of creation and the lives of humans in order to allow them to have free will. Even 50 million miles away, the engineer desperately wants to assist her creation. Ultimately, she echoes this image of divine retracting by pulling herself back from interfering, and the little robot triumphantly succeeds on its own.

Other parenting lessons are illustrated when the viewer witnesses the morning routine carried out by the space program. In the U.S. space program, ground control typically wakes up astronauts by playing music. The scientists who collaborated on the Rover mission maintained this charming tradition when "waking" the robots from their necessary slumber and recharging. They understand the vital role of rest in helping the robots optimize their learning and remain in peak working order. The scientists' enchanting choices for morning playlists serve as an example of the delight we can take in fulfilling mundane tasks, such as dragging our reluctant teenagers out of bed in the morning (if you have an early-rising toddler and are reading this, trust me, this will happen). Sometimes, we are so caught up in the day-to-day worries and obligations of raising our children, that we forget the fun we can have with them just by blasting our favorite songs. The concept of hiddur mitzvah, translated into English, as "beautifying the commandment," requires that we do not simply fulfill a religious obligation by checking off some to-do list of annoying obligations. Instead, we take time and effort to create beauty. A ketubahketubahכְּתֻבָּהTraditional Jewish marriage contract; plural: ketubot (Jewish marriage contract) isn't just printed out like a shopping list. Rather, we make it into a piece of art. Likewise, as parents, we can take the mundane activities of raising our children and try to elevate them with flair and joy.

Most of all, the little robots sent out to explore Mars and their human "parents" reminded me to encourage my children to look up at the night sky and consider our humble place in a vast, wondrous universe. Of course, our concerns and worries about our children and our lives are consequential. Yet, when we consider the infinite scope of the cosmos, we can regain some much-needed perspective. If our child walks at 15 months and not 12 months, it's fine. If our children take a little extra time to master tasks, or if our child navigates the world in a way that requires modifications or tweaks to accommodate that difference, that's okay, too. At the end of a day on earth, our work is meaningful if we share love with our children who also learn how to love and make this world a kinder, more intelligent, and healthier planet. These are lessons that the Jewish tradition, some imaginative and brilliant NASA engineers, and a few hard-working robots seem to have mastered and can teach us.

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