Perhaps it isn’t really a race?


Sometimes it’s hard not to see life as a series of deadlines looming up ahead like a many-headed hydra. Every time you come face to face with one you discover that the beast STILL isn’t quite as deadly as you had feared, and you chop off its head just as its big, goggling eyes are staring into yours. But then another head immediately pops up to replace it. And repeat.

For most of us, the cycle starts when we’re quite young. School and university exams can be scary, panic-inducing deadlines. I knew people who were on Valium at the age of seventeen. And even those who normally find exams easy can be traumatised by an unexpected FAILURE!!! (I failed art, of all things!) Also, while we’re supposed to believe that student life is as good as it gets, for those who go on to further education, the transition from being a bright kid at school to being a mediocre and insignificant individual in a massive institution where everyone is, relatively speaking, exceptional can be hard.

When I worked briefly as a water engineer in Malawi, we had to get the main network of pipes in theground before the wet season each year. That was another solid – or liquid? – deadline, a real race against time. But being young and unscarred, so to speak, I found it part of the excitement. And much later, when I decided to get a ‘proper job’ back home in what we used to call ‘computing’, I learned that customers much prefer it if you’re realistic about the deadlines you set for product releases and updates, as long as you actually hit them. There’s nothing worse than suppliers who promise the moon and then apologise over and over again when they fail to deliver, is there?

And talking of the moon brings us nicely – did you see it coming? – to NASA and the Artemis Mission, which is supposed to take humankind back there some fifty years after Apollo. Of course, the announcement a couple of weeks ago that the next two stages in the programme were going to be delayed after NASA had ‘uncovered issues’ with the spacecraft was hardly a surprise to those who have been following the saga. It means that Artemis II – due to send people around the moon and originally scheduled to happen in late 2024 – won’t take off until near the end of 2025. And Artemis III, whose goal is to actually land people on the surface, will be delayed until late 2026 at the earliest.

Astrobotic Technology, meanwhile, recently had to abandon attempts to land their Peregrine 1spacecraft on the moon only twenty-four hours after take-off, and there are rumours that the Japanese craft that landed a day or two ago touched down either upside down or facing in the wrong direction for its solar panels to work. Several more missions to land stuff on the moon are planned for 2024, so entertainment is guaranteed, but I’m left with two thoughts: first, is it really important if things like Artemis get delayed? And second, did the Apollo missions fundamentally rely on human pilots to landthe lunar modules and are machines better at flying things yet?

I think the answer to the first question is a resounding ‘no’, since even if humanity is eventually saved by missions to the moon and those that follow to Mars, it’s not going to happen all of a sudden, just in the nick of time. So, it’s a bit frustrating for everyone involved, but only really worrying for the NASA folk who are probably always wondering if their funding will be cut. In other words, their deadlines are mostly self-imposed.

And while we’re still on the subject of self-imposed deadlines, I can’t help asking myself if the targets I set for publishing my books matter at all? I think the answer is also fairly obvious. Nobody will shed tears or lose their jobs if they slip. And I never expected to see massive queues outside bookshops in China (and elsewhere) like the ones that formed for all the later novels in the Harry Potter series.That’s why, towards the end of last year, I shuffled the schedule for the next two novels slightly tomake things more realistic and less stressful.

So, what happened? My work rate to get the last book finished in time for Christmas would probably have earned a thumbs up from the great Elon Musk himself, and the experience was immediatelyfollowed by treatment for high blood pressure – unless it was all due to the driving in LA over the holiday period? (It’s at least partly a question of genetics, of course.)

Conclusion: there are enough real deadlines out there – climate change anyone? – without beating ourselves up about stuff that’s supposed to be fun, though I probably wouldn’t say that on ‘X’.

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