Optimism: The mission-critical ingredient

Back in the heyday of the space program, in the era of Neil Armstrong and Apollo, there were tears and cheers with each milestone reached, and none was felt or heralded more widely than Armstrong’s first step on the dusty orb that is our moon.

“If we can send a man to the moon” was a clause that commonly prefaced many then-impossible dreams­, including, “why can’t we find a cure for cancer?” The achievements of that mission continue to inspire scientists, researchers and other dreamers of a better world.

The recent news from the New Horizons spacecraft that icy Pluto is indeed a live planetary body with an internal heat source may not have captured the public’s imagination like Armstrong’s footprints did, but the achievement is all the more extraordinary for the long-range vision, tenacity and modest budget under which this milestone occurred.

The discovery that Pluto’s surface is a mere 100 million years old (in a Solar System 4.5 billion years old) was made possible by an unmanned spacecraft described as roughly the size of a baby grand piano. Begun in 2001, the mission was jobbed out to Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory under the leadership of scientist Alan Stern, who won the competition to lead the costliest mission to date to be led by a scientist outside NASA.

The New Horizons spacecraft set out in 2006 on the three billion-mile, nine-year journey to Pluto for a final cost of $720 million.  “There’s going to be a lot of noes because we’re going to stay on price and we’re going to stay on schedule,” Stern told his team at the outset, according to an interview published in the Wall Street Journal. “We’re going to do a really good mission, but you know what, it’s going to be necessarily compromised in some ways, because we’re trying to break the mold.”

We are nearly half a century removed from Apollo, which ran from 1961 to 1972 and put 12 men on the moon in six different missions for a final price tag of $25.4 billion, or $170 billion in 2005 dollars. Here are two hands clapping for the intrepid pioneers who built a spacecraft the size of a piano on a Spartan budget, launched it into the solar system and then held their breath for nine years until the mission was accomplished.

When you think about it, the specialty of radiology will require no less vision, tenacity and fiscal discipline in making the transition to value-based care, as you, too, are being asked to break the mold. As inspiration for your journey, we provide coverage of recent talks by Rasu Shrestha, MD, Kevin McEnery, MD, and John Nance, MD. Don’t forget to pack the optimism.

Cheryl Proval