Cindy Healy – Always Check the Cables

Inspiring software programmer Cindy Healy shares a funny, touching story about how she almost failed to blaze a trail to Mars.


I was at the movies and Matt Damon up on the big screen. He was stranded on Mars, but then he gets out of his Mars car and he starts digging. I realize exactly what he’s digging for. The tears start flowing down my cheeks. I’m trying hard to suppress a sob because I know I’m the only one in the theater crying at this part of the movie. I’m just wiping away tears. That’s my spacecraft. You see, I’m on of the 200 or so people on this planet that put that spacecraft, Mars Pathfinder, up there for Matt Damon to find her.

I’m really proud of some software that we wrote that helped perfect the navigation system for the spacecraft because you know what they call a spacecraft without perfect navigation? Space crap. Anyway, another hat I got to wear was writing up link code and so my name was in every transmission that went from Earth to Mars for the entire mission. Hundreds and thousands of messages. When the Martians finally do come to earth, they’re going to be looking for me.

The hat that remained elusive that I really wanted was to be on the launch team. This is about 20 people that would go live and work at the Kennedy Space Center and put the spacecraft together for the final time and get her ready for launch, do testing and stuff. One day, my co-worker, Ron, the UNIX Systems Administrator, he lamented to me that he was on the list, but he didn’t want to go because his wife was going to have a baby and it was terrible timing and it was all wrong for him. I saw my opportunity. I said, “I’ll do it. You can train me how to be the UNIX Systems Administrator. How hard could it be? I’ll go in your place.” He actually liked the idea.

We got management to buy in and the next thing I know, I’m at Cape Kennedy unpacking computers, laying cable under the floor and formatting Unix machines, as if I knew what I was doing. On the night of the launch, I was about 20 minutes late getting to our outpost building because my buddy, Becky and I had stopped to take a selfie with the rocket. We were ahead of our time on selfies. When I get there, everybody’s looking at me like I’m late or something and giving me the stink eye. “What’s wrong?” We had no connection. We were dead in the water. No communications whatsoever. We could scrub the launch and this was a job for the UNIX System Administrator.

I panicked a little. I just, talk about imposter syndrome. I literally was not a UNIX Systems Administrator. I dug deep and thought back to my training with Ron and the first thing he told me was you gotta check the cables. So I checked the back of every computer. I check every line. I checked every piece of equipment and finally made my way over to this Cisco Router where sure enough a cable had come lose. I jiggled that baby back in and we were back online. I was a hero as the UNIX Systems Administrator.

We went on to have a great launch, great flight, amazing operations on the surface of Mars. Pathfinder lived up to her name and she found a path for planetary travel that hadn’t been done before. She just blazed this trail to Mars and all the subsequent Mars missions have built upon her legacy and have leveraged her success including future missions that will put people on Mars. I learned so many amazing lessons in those three and half years. I learned to not worry about doubters, to take on big challenges. I learned to take risks and do things even if I don’t know what I’m doing. I learned to always check the cables.