Words of Advice:

"If Something Seems To Be Too Good To Be True, It's Best To Shoot It, Just In Case." -- Fiona Glenanne

"Flying the Airplane is More Important than Radioing Your Plight to a Person on the Ground
Who is Incapable of Understanding or Doing Anything About It." -- Unknown

“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level
and then beat you with experience.” -- Mark Twain

"Stay Strapped or Get Clapped." -- probably not Mr. Rogers

"Eck!" -- George the Cat

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Phobos-Grunt Can Teach Us

You have probably heard of the failure of Russia's Phobos-Grunt Mars mission. What you might not know is that the Russians have not successfully flown a deep-space probe since the fall of the Soviet Union. Their last attempt, Mars 96, failed to leave Earth orbit.

Designing and flying a space probe calls for a lot of skills. Skills are perishable. In our everyday lives, we all know this. The more times that you do something, the better you get at it. Whether it is cooking, skiing, shooting, the more practiced you are at something, the better you can do it. As you get better at something, you learn the tricks and techniques that aren't in the books.

Designing and flying space probes is no different. There is a lot that can go wrong; the Hubble would have been a failure if it wasn't in an orbit reachable by the Shuttle. A few minutes' worth of research will show you the testing that is being conducted for the Webb Space Telescope. If you have ever seen this animation of the steps involved in deploying the Webb Telescope, it is pretty complex.

Designing and flying these things takes a lot of skill and experience. Knowing how to do it and knowing what can go wrong, as well as what can be done to minimize the chances of failure, is not for amateurs.

The same is true, unfortunately, for other technically deep programs. That's true for designing airplanes, ships and submarines. If you don't keep at least a core group of engineers employed, the skills will be lost. One of the problems that the Russians have been having is that the collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s resulted in the elimination of a lot of their technical capabilities, which is one of the reasons why the Russians turned to buying warships from the French.

Some technologies basically hit maturation and then it doesn't matter as much. But some have not and for those, it's either keep working at it or give up the ability to do so.

1 comment:

Stewart Dean said...

And as I've long said, a) industries aren't like light bulbs. You can't turn them on and off as market balances change to maximize profits.
Also b) innovations don't pop into being, they come about when people work with stuff and get an epiphany about how things could be done differently. To put it in a different analogy, you can't think and reason without an intellectual and rational framework, without the terms and concepts to flesh out thought and then push things further. When you kill industries and jobs that expose people to the production and development of technology, you kill the future.