Saturday, January 17, 2004

Worldview (and beyond) of an Engineer

When I was in my last year of college, I had to take an economics of engineering course. It showed us how to figure the costs of financing projects and how evil the school administration could be by scheduling the one session of a class required for graduation at 8:00 am.

The topic of the class gave the professor the opportunity to discuss other economic issues relating to engineering. One point he made was that the modern engineer will be more like a contractor than an employee, meaning that we could expect to be hired on for a single project without the assurance that the employer would find more work for you once the project was done. Hence the need for the day's engineers to maintain their own 401k's.

Looking at President Bush's new initiative for manned space exploration, that lesson is coming back to my mind. As often happens, it collided with another piece of junk in the old attic and fused into a new idea.

The other piece of junk was the memory of my first job where one of my first tasks was to get the lab up to date on its written procedures and policies in order to achieve a federal certification. When the auditor came out, I learned that he was a retired engineer from the Apollo program. I grew up in Lancaster, CA, not too far away from Edwards Air Force base. Those years were spent in the shadow of the events of The Right Stuff and the cutting edge of aerospace technology. He was a very personable guy (yes, personable engineers do exist) and he let me pick his brains about the issues he faced in the Apollo program while he was poring over my paperwork. That was to a young engineer like getting coached on batting by Mark McGuire would be to a Minor Leaguer.

During those years of the first trips to the moon, everyone looked at the astronauts as the heroes. No doubt, those gentlemen were the ones who took the risks and put their lives on the line. The engineers, on the other hand, were the ones who Got It Done. They created the technology needed to get a man to the moon and back again. In some cases they had to make the technology to make the technology. The administrators did what they needed to do: they gave the engineers the vision, gave them the resources to do the job, and then they got out of the way. The engineers took the space program from vision to creation. Truthfully, the Apollo program was the greatest piece of collaborative art ever conceived.

Those engineers were determined to Get It Done. Little thought went into, "What am I going to do when this is done?" The Apollo program was like a single commissioned piece of art. The focus of purpose is what made it beautiful.

Today, NASA has slowed. Much of its form has become yet another government agency, filled with administrators whose thoughts of elevation only apply to the career ladder rather than above the atmosphere. The ethos has gone from Get It Done to Don't Screw Up. People speak about fulfilling the human spirit through exploration. The human spirit gains nothing from playing it safe. It gains from taking risks and acheiving in greater proportion.

The reality of what my professor said about effectively being a contractor may or may not be correct. One's heart may tremor at the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds beyond the current job. In a way though, it turns one's mind back to the old ethic. If you have a career position, you can only lose it by screwing up. If you are on a project contract, you know that the next contract will only come if you Get It Done.

That is my concern with the Bush proposal as it is. The earliest date set for a moon base is 2015. Eleven years. That is too long. I don't mean as an outside observer staming my foot and whining, "I want it nooow!" I mean that eleven years, at minimum, is long enough for an engineer in the project to see this work as the rest of his career. That will strongly drive the mindset to Don't Screw Up from Get It Done.

For something like this, Don't Screw Up just won't Get It Done.

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