Monday, May 9, 2011

Engineer motivation

I watched the press conference for STS-134, the Endeavor shuttle mission, on Spaceflight Now today. Mike Moses gave a thorough explanation of what they've done to repair and troubleshoot the heater issued that cause the scrubbed launch 10 days ago. They showed video of men taking the interconnect box out and showed them open it up. It wasn't even sooty inside. The man that took off the cover looked at it closely, and I'm sure he was sniffing it to see if he could smell the tell-tale signs of the smoke getting out. Apparently they did find vaporized fuse circuitry in a hybrid driver in the box but have not found what caused the current surge. They are going to keep looking for the source of the failure. It could be inside the box or in external wiring.
NASA photo from

Whenever I hear of any kind of wiring problem in a woodsy place like Cape Canaveral I'm inclined to blame rodents. I wonder what kind of mouse countermeasures they have in the Vehicle Assembly Building? What about on the launch pad? Do they leave those access panels open when they're working on the shuttle? It would be the work of a moment for a family of white-footed deer mice to move into a nice place like that wiring chase. They have some good looking black sheathing on the wire bundles in there, though. It kind of looks like it would be less toothsome to a mouse than your typical automobile wire insulation. I'd sure like to know if that was a consideration when they chose the jacketing.

So they didn't mention finding any cosy nests of run-over pine straw next to the hydrazine heaters, but they did say they took the failure out of the shuttle and ran some redundant wiring. Tests show full functionality. They can finish testing the stuff they took out to figure out the source of the failure while working up to a new launch time of May 16 at 8:56 am EDT.

I love watching them talk about engineering. I'm glad to know people out there still know about this stuff. I sure fell down on the job. I once designed a wire harness with one of those big mil spec Amphenol connectors on it. I even got the Air Force to use colored wire instead of just white and felt very proud of myself. But I don't get to do that stuff anymore because I'm too old to be allowed to do new things in high tech. At my age I'm supposed to have a specialty and I don't. I expect NASA has already eliminated all jobs doing new things and are just having the people who have done everything before do it over again two more times.

One reporter asked a question about layoff notices going out soon. Would this delay affect that? Mike Moses said no, they would still give out the layoff notices because they are required to by law, but that the people would still be working to complete the mission and nobody would be let go until after the shuttle was in the air. Well isn't that special. They really are counting on everybody having engineer mentality where they work for a technological goal while repressing any concern about their own future. They don't worry that their concentration may suffer? Isn't anybody mad that the whole country has kind of forsaken them? Well, the part of the country with the money.

Engineers are not supposed to be sentimental. They are self-deprecating individuals motivated by innovation. Another reporter asked about a rumor that they might try to get STS-135, the last Atlantis mission, to launch on July 4th. I got all teary-eyed at that idea. Wouldn't that be a glorious thing? Well, the real engineers behind the desk quickly gave three good technical reasons why that wasn't going to happen. It had never been a goal to get a launch on that date.

I have always known engineers are supposed to be oblivious to themselves as they focus on technology. I learned it from a joke my dad used to tell all the time when I was little. My dad is a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and a Hell of an Engineer and he likes to tell jokes. Some people who first meet him might be taken aback and wonder if he has Witzels├╝cht, but he has always been like this. His condition is not the onset of dementia that could be alleviated with serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It's just worse now because he has access to more jokes thanks to the satellite radio comedy channel. I maintain he should be mindful of his audience when he choses a joke to tell and shouldn't just repeat everything he hears. He maintains I have no sense of humor.

Anyway, I used to think this was a good self-deprecating joke. Now I think it might actually be an allegory for a world with nothing left but sports fans and loose bolts. Anyway, here's my dad's best joke about engineers. I usually change the set-up to suit the audience, but I'll give it to you the way I heard it when I was a toddler. I can't help college rivalries.

Three college students were standing on a gallows about to be guillotined. The executioner asked the Auburn student if he had any last words.
"Waaaaaaaaaaar Eagles!" and he put his head in the little trough and the executioner released the latch and the blade came down and schreeeeee stopped right above his neck.
"Well, if it doesn't work that means you get to go free! You, University of Georgia, any last words?"
"How 'bout them dogs!?! Woof Woof Woof!" and he put his head in the little trough and the executioner released the latch and the blade came down and schreeeeee stopped right above his neck.
"Well, if it doesn't work that means you get to go free! Right, Georgia Tech, any last words?"
"Yeah, if you tighten that bolt right there this thing would work a lot better."

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