Friday, 7 January 2005

Engineering Heroes

The great difficulty in explaining the kind of work that I do is doing it in terms that people outside the profession can understand. In this article, meant for both Engineers and the Lay Public, I'm trying to give a clue as to why I do the things I do, and why I find it so exciting and rewarding. I also try to "push aside the curtain" so the reader gets an idea of what really goes on behind the scenes of any great Engineering work.

One of my personal heroes is Isembard Kingdom Brunel, one of the more famous Giants of 19th Century Engineering. Even some non-engineers have heard of him.
With John Scott Russell, he was responsible for the design of the Great Britain, the first steamship ever to cross the Atlantic. Ten years later, in 1853, he started work on the design of the Great Western, which remained the largest vessel in existence until 1899
As one reader has pointed out, that's not quite right. I really should stop using the BBC as a source without very carefully checking every word. From Wikipedia
He used his prestige to convince his railway company employers to build the Great Western, at the time by far the largest steamship in the world. It first sailed in 1837. The Great Britain followed in 1843, and was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Building on these successes, Brunel turned to a third ship in 1852, even larger than both of its predecessors. The Great Eastern was cutting edge technology for its time — it was the largest ship ever built until the RMS Lusitania launched in 1906 — and it soon ran over budget and over schedule in the face of a series of difficult technical problems. The ship is widely perceived as a white elephant. Though a failure at its original purpose of passenger travel, it eventually found a role as an oceanic telegraph cable-layer.
His failures were at least as spectacular and imaginative as his successes, he constantly "pushed the limits" of the possible, while remaining a quirky and very human personality.
In 1843, while performing a conjuring trick for the amusement of his children, he accidentally swallowed a half-sovereign coin which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it, as did a machine to shake it loose devised by Brunel himself. Eventually, at the suggestion of Sir Marc, Isambard was strapped to a board, turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free.
See what I mean? My kind of bloke. I managed to stop Andrew from putting coins etc in his mouth by performing simple sleight-of-hand magic, producing 20c pieces from ears and armpits, and he's now pretty good at doing simple stage magic himself - but not putting coins in his mouth. Not bad for a 3-year-old.

Anyway, the spirit of Brunel lives on. With a few exceptions, large engineering projects these days are too complex to be attributed to any one individual. Teams of hundreds or thousands are required. Usually. Even Brunel had to work with the great shipbuilder John Scott Russel when it came to building the Great Eastern, and manufacturing it required thousands of fitters, turners, rivetters, ironmongers, all doing their jobs with precision and accuracy.

That brings me to one of the great achievements of the bygone century, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan.


I say "the bygone century", as it was launched 7 years ago (it takes awhile to get to the outer planets), and was constructed over a long period before then. It's only in June last year that it got near its destination. But all that work, the fruits of the labours of thousands of dedicated individuals, could have been negated had it not been for the presistance and intuition of one man. Boris Smeds.
Last June, Scientists were thrilled when NASA's Cassini probe successfully began orbiting Saturn after a 3.5-billion-kilometer, seven-year journey across the solar system. The 6-ton spacecraft immediately started returning spectacular pictures of the planet, its rings, and its 30-plus moons. It was just the beginning of Cassini's four-year tour of Saturn's neighborhood, and while scientists expect amazing discoveries in the years to come, the most dramatic chapter in the mission's history will happen this January, when scientists attempt to peek beneath the atmospheric veil that surrounds Saturn's largest moon, Titan—a chapter that might have ended in disaster, save for one persistent engineer.

In a collaboration with the European Space Agency, Cassini, in addition to its own suite of scientific instruments designed to scan Saturn and its moons, carries a hitchhiker—a lander probe called Huygens. A stubby cone 3 meters across, Huygens was built for a single purpose: to pierce the cloaking methane atmosphere of Titan and report its findings back to Cassini for relay to Earth.

So it was quite a shock when Boris Smeds, a graying, Swedish, 26-year ESA veteran , who normally specializes in solving problems related to the agency's network of ground stations, discovered in early 2000 that Cassini's receiver was in danger of scrambling Huygens's data beyond recognition.

Making that discovery would lead Smeds from his desk in Darmstadt, Germany, to an antenna farm deep in California's Mojave Desert, after he and his allies battled bureaucracy and disbelief to push through a test program tough enough to reveal the existence of Cassini-Huygens's communications problem. In doing so, Smeds continued a glorious engineering tradition of rescuing deep-space missions from doom with sheer persistence, insight, and lots of improvisation.
Read the Whole Thing to see what happened. It's in an article in the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) SPECTRUM Online magazine, and I first heard the story on Boxing day, at a barbecue. The article captures in essence the difficulties, challenges, triumphs and tragedies that are all a part of "Rocket Science", engineering of space missions.

Of course, the Huygens probe is due to enter Titan's atmosphere in 7 days (7 days, 8 hours, 32 mins and 44 secs as I write this, but who's counting?) so it might all turn to custard anyway. We'll see. That's another part of Space Engineering, the nail-biting wait to see if it all worked - even if you personally had nothing to do with it. When it's your own work, it's not so much nail-biting as sheer terror. Been there, done that.

I'll mention one more engineering hero : Ron Avitzur.
"It's midnight. I've been working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I'm not being paid. In fact, my project was canceled six months ago, so I'm evading security, sneaking into Apple Computer's main offices in the heart of Silicon Valley, doing clandestine volunteer work for an eight-billion-dollar corporation."
The complete story makes fascinating reading for any programmer (Been there, done that once more), but also gives an insight into the sometimes stranger-than-fiction world of Software Engineering.

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