Researchers reveal their epic fails | Science News for Students

Researchers reveal their epic fails

Even a rocket explosion can’t stop ultimate scientific success
Oct 18, 2017 — 7:30 am EST
science explosion
Every scientist has had a failure or two in the lab.

Scientists might seem like they’ve got it all together. They send missions to Mars, study dead bodies and handle swarms of live bees like it’s just another day in the lab.

But every scientist faces a challenge of one kind or another. Some may have trouble getting their career started. “I got into college, and I didn’t do well and I had to drop out. That was pretty hard on my self-esteem,” says Jeanette Newmiller. She tried other jobs, but without a college degree, she couldn’t do the work she really wanted. So Newmiller tried again. “It took a long time to finally get back to college, and I had to make some sacrifices now to do it,” she says. “I’m really excited to move on and get the kind of job I know I can do well.” Newmiller is now a water resources engineer at the University of California, Davis.   

Sometimes, work literally blows up in your face. That’s what happened to Mark Holdridge. He’s an aerospace engineer at NASA. (That’s short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) His group had launched a spacecraft that was supposed to fly by a series of comets. Several weeks after launch, there was an incident, and “the spacecraft didn’t survive,” he recalls. “It really taught me just how tenuous all this is. You can work on something for years and be very disappointed in the end…. No one wants to fail.” Holdridge and his team went through a dark time. But, he says, “we did rise from that and do other great missions.” Now’s he’s worked on missions to orbit asteroids and explore Pluto.

Newmiller and Holdridge are two of the scientists profiled in our Cool Jobs series who shared their greatest failures with the Science News for Students audience. Listen to the full playlist to hear about their and other scientists’ toughest times — and how they bounced back.

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Power Words

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aerospace     A research field devoted to the study of Earth’s atmosphere and the space beyond or to aircraft that travel in the atmosphere and space.

asteroid     A rocky object in orbit around the sun. Most asteroids orbit in a region that falls between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers refer to this region as the asteroid belt.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

Mars     The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.

NASA     Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

orbit     The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.

Pluto     A dwarf planet that is located in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune. Pluto is the tenth largest object orbiting the sun.