How many Engineering Ages?

Professor Lisa Jardine of University College London hosted a series of seven programmes on Radio 4 recently. Called “The Seven Ages of Science”, it was a cultural-historical take on the progress of Science through the centuries. There were plenty of thought-provoking angles on what we thought was a fairly well-trodden story.

The Lad is, like many others, concerned and puzzled at the current, image of the profession of engineering in the public prints and public imagination.

Can the Cultural Historian bring some specialised tools or a different standpoint to the story? Has it been done already? Is there a PhD in it for some post-grad or even a radio or TV programme?

Engineering is defined as manipulating forces for our benefit, starting from erecting first shelters through to, take your pick, nuclear power, wind turbines, building CERN machine itself, etc., etc.. Yet many see engineering having only the ’oily rag’ image. Or the image is either vanishing or, at best, subsumed into that of ‘scientists’.

Some vignettes through the Ages could include the contemporary reputation of Roman engineering and engineers (perhaps via Professor Mary Beard); the initial division between scientists and engineers during the Renaissance [or was it later]; engineers in the Lunar Society; commercialisation of the steam engine by Boulton; Edison’s first Applied Science laboratory.

There will be many other vignettes that The Lad has not thought about. After all, he is only an engineer not a cultural historian.

Perhaps a rousing climax could address the claim of some software writers in I.T. to the title of ‘Engineer’. Have they seen it as a derelict title that they quite fancied? From this view, have they then arrogated the title to themselves?

The engineer, when she is working in engineering, uses the physical forces that exist in the natural universe. Thus she is subject to the laws of Newton, Faraday, Carnot, Clausius, Maxwell and others.

The software writer on the other hand is subject to no such Laws. Her work inhabits a different space: a space that is not subject to the same constraints. It is only making marks on paper or specifying switches to be opened or closed.

Her only limitations are those in the ethereal: far boundaries only set by such as Gödel’s theorem on undecidable propositions;é such as Wittgenstein’s statement that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”; and such as the Kantian ‘phenomenal world’. It is a range so wide that it is almost impossible to imagine other than as ‘anything is possible’.

Look at it another way.

Consider the computer games and the Star Wars films and the Star Trek ships that go to warp speed. They may from their visual complexity make a pretty good fist of looking like a real, complex, space structure. More, at least, than those of Flash Gordon’s V2 like rockets. But have they been designed so that they could work in the real physical world? No they haven’t.

It has been said that if it looks like a duck walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. To some, coding apparently looks like engineering, walks like engineering and sounds to them like engineering, so it is engineering.


Its champions have been mainly brought up in the world of Microsoft and Google; do they know what engineering really is? Whereas coders, logicians, can operate like the pilots of an aerobatic plane, engineers are struggling in the city and its streets. Coding has the glorious flexibility of dreams; engineering needs the stamina of the London Marathon runner.

The Lad is eager to repeat that some Information Technology is engineering. For example the designers of the IC chips that seem endlessly to develop and advance and without which most software projects could not take flight; and much the same is true of the engineers of the marvellous hard disc technology

Professor Lisa, can you offer us a refreshing draught of a new view?

Beyond the boiler suit.

The Lad saw an excellent article in The Guardian on 27/6/13 on encouraging women into engineering. He liked it so much that he stole part of its sub-head for this post title. He hopes that the writer, Oliver Wainwright, or his paper do not mind: that – and the quotes below. Such golden words and the nous to report them should be broadcast far and wide.

Just as woman are rare in engineering so is a good article on the topic by an Architecture and Design Critic; which is Oliver’s present task. He has found these engineers and their views.

As a water engineer for the great consultants, Arup, Ms Yewnde Akinola won the Young Woman Engineer of the Year award last year. The Lad lauds her for hitting the nail on the head. She said,

“…the job [engineering] is all about design, creativity and innovation”. She had already said “…when you’re at school it’s difficult to see that there’s anything beyond hammers and metalwork and boilersuits….  She made a cracking suggestion   “…let them go see JLS and think about how the stage, lighting and sound engineering works.”

Putting a slightly different slant, Ms Roma Agrawal is Structural engineer at WSP who worked on the Shard. She is involved in university and schools programmes trying to change the perceptions of the industry. Her point was also equally important; “A lot of people still think it’s all about sitting on the computer doing really hard maths all day. But most of my time is spent on creative problem solving – drawing and sketching out ideas.”

The Lad cannot better that in such a few words; so he won’t try. He will, if he can reach them, invite both Ms Akinola and Ms Agrawal to guest post on their speciality.

Engineers and Scientists

Engineering saving lives Part 1

first picture
New Liver Transplant preservation and transport machine. Copyright Team Consulting

The OrganOx ® metra™ project is a story of real engineering. This post is about how it nicely shows the distinction between customer and scientists and engineers. For The Lad this is not a new topic, here and here, to the point of perhaps tub-thumping tedium. So, he will keep it brief this time. The next post will talk about the OrganOx® metra™ engineering in more detail.

There was a customer, a liver transplant surgeon. His field, Medicine, is one of the three that form the Tripod of Civilisation .He has developed his skills using existing technology. He knows that he could save many more lives of gravely ill patients, if only more livers were suitable for transplant. More livers are potentially available but some are damaged during their chilling for preservation and others have minor features that prevent them from being chilled. Because of this there is a great shortfall between usable livers and the demand for transplants. He and his colleagues could do so much more!

Every year improving transplant technology increases the demand for the operation and the need for donor organs goes up. To save more lives we must make best use of all available organs: we cannot afford to reject possible donor organs for non-physiological reasons. Neither can distance between the donor and the recipient be allowed to be a problem.


“Why not,” he suggests “try to preserve livers warm instead of chilling them??

The scientist agrees with him. He says,

“Yes. Why not? But there is a lot we don’t know. We need answers first. It will be, in effect, keeping it alive and working outside the body.”

He investigates. He asks questions about the behaviour of such organs and carries out the experiments that will answer those questions. The work concerns the temperatures and pressures and chemistry of a warming process. These, at length, confirm that the ideas of the surgeon are possible. Now we come to the rub. These features have to be set up in the real world every time that they are needed. Only then can more lives be saved. But how?

Every time there is success: then a life is saved. Should there be a failure then a life will be lost or, at best, be left on a knife edge again. You cannot just drop a liver in a glass jar and carry it to the recipient. The surgeon and the scientist turned to the engineers.

“We have had these ideas. Can you design and make something using them in the real world?”

The engineers know that it is very difficult to design a machine that works reliably, in what is virtually a life-critical situation, day-to-day in a hospital. How can these features be brought into play EVERY time that they are needed? The machine has to be always available to do exactly the right job in the right way whenever it is needed. It has to guarantee to protect and transport the organ without the slightest damage. For the engineer designing this machine, some of her knowledge was developed yesterday and some three hundred years ago.

It’s simple. Scientists ask questions: about how things happen. Engineers use the answers for our benefit.

Spyker, Miranda and Solid Smoke

Here we have a job lot of three, small but egregious media errors.


There was a piece in the paper on one of those wild sports cars that are either never built or only half a dozen are claimed at around £1Million each.

It is called the Spyker B6 Venator. Designing a car-any car-involves defining the details of engine, suspension, body and chassis, transmission, electronic control and much else besides. That is a massive, engineering task.

Victor Muller claims to be the designer of the Venator. It appears that he started as a lawyer and since has been the owner of several firms ranging from marine salvage to fashion. Not impressive qualifications for a car designer.

That designer claim is probably only as valid as that of a child drawing a car. “It’s got a really big engine …  y’know; lots of small wheels…  er, machine guns at the front and  … a boot full of footballs. Yeah!”

It sounds like an ego-driven dream.


The other day Miranda Krestovnikoff, a zoologist and usually reliable TV presenter, had a piece on learning from other species. How do those little tree frogs cling to a wet leaf? Not only that, they can then stop clinging and off they walk. Marvellous.

Miranda spoke, on The One Show , to Professor Anne Neville, of Leeds University, who told us she is investigating how the little creatures do it. This splendid skill could let a tiny machine that she and her team is designing cling to a surface inside the human body and even move around. Such a device could carry a video camera to show a surgeon using keyhole surgery exactly what she is doing as she works.

Our zoologist called Professor Neville and her team, ‘scientists’.

No, they are ‘engineers’. Professor Anne Neville is a qualified and very senior engineer and is Chair in Tribology and Surface Engineering, School of Mechanical Engineering. Check her out. If this is called a quibble, then The Lad must ask if a zoologist would be embarrassed to confuse a shark and a dolphin.

Engineers design machines and scientists investigate the natural world. Engineers designed the system and created the valves in Miranda’s SCUBA gear and scientists investigated nitrogen in the blood and wrote the diving tables she uses when diving for TV.

Solid smoke

It’s maddening. Engineering is mostly ignored, but then, when it does come up, it is often treated like this. This is an example of Bower Bird syndrome [attraction to shiny baubles]. I am sorry but it was The One Show again. It’s nothing personal; just the limitations of the sad, viewing habits of The Lad.

Advocates claim the name Aerogel for a weird type of stuff. It appeared in an item on unusual materials fronted by Marty Jopson. Marty comes over-as always-with an engaging screen presence and calls himself a ‘Science Bloke’ and started out as a props designer.

Aerogel is a remarkably low density foam hence its nickname of ‘solid smoke’. Marty marvelled over it and gave one of his demonstrations. Now these are normally very enlightening and very interesting. This time, he showed a small block of the foam with a chocolate resting on the top of the block. He lit a blow torch and passed it underneath and played the flame on the bottom of the block for a few seconds. The Lad has to be honest: he did not time it but can assure you that it was, undoubtedly, shown on screen for no longer than 15 seconds. Glass fibre insulations blanket could, probably, perform similarly.

Perhaps you have never heard of the ‘solid smoke’ before? No? The Lad had but is not surprised. He had assumed that it had been invented somewhere around the 1980’s. Looking into it he was surprised to find that its precursor had been invented in the 1930’s – over 80 years ago.

Why have you not heard of it? This engineer will tell you why. It is because it is useless. Now, now Lad, don’t exaggerate: it has been said to have been used in those hotbeds of value-for-money – NASA spacecraft. Many years have passed without a job. It is one of those curious things that are sometimes tagged as a “Solution in search of a problem.” Note that the only organisations making it are universities. The Lad has been unable to find a single commercial organisation offering the stuff for sale.

Next Time

Look at real, valuable engineering innovations instead. One is the OrganOx matra which is the subject of my next two posts. Do not allow yourself to be led by the nose to marvel, uncritically, at space-filling items either journalistic or foam.

Current Index

To reach any post use the Link or the template below[No in P column below]


Post name


P Reference No

Dreamliner and a Nightmare

LiO battery Design problems need solutioneed solution


A change of state for Dyson – back!

Animal design reversion


Entropic disorder at the BBC

Bad model of Second Law


“The Genius of Invention” watched

Review of TV programme at Drax


Why and How: the dip stick dilemmas

Measuring oil level and Ricardo engineering


Nerd who skewered the Heavens

RIP Neil Armstrong, “some nerd..”


Coffee Cups, a Cauldron and Containers

Artistry and Design of Shipping Containers


Automatic Parking on Mars

Design criteria of landing method


Naming Convention 02 – The Answer?

Wilkes, Logician title


What’s the Naming Convention 01?

Schmidt, Google and Engineers in IT


The Go-to People for ship shifting

Engineering vs Celebrity


So! “Schubert Lab”?

Engineering treat as Music on TV/Radio


Follow the Money

Engineering and Commerce


Super Puma down – III

Cleanliness heat treatment


Super Puma down – II

Metallurgy, crack fractography


STOP PRESS – Free Power

New wave-power generator


Super Puma down – I

Epicyclic gears, chip detectors, Memorial


Madeleine trumped by Ruby Loftus

Painting, Apprenticeships, machining


Some machines swim

Underwater vehicle, frozen Planet teaser


Not in the Media

lack of eng media coverage rant


UK enters Swedish Turf

Critical Review of cttee of QE Prize for Engng


A pinch of Chemical Engineering

Carbon Capture/Sequestration review and Chem Eng


Ignorance, quarrels and the feedback loop

Ill-informed commentary on Engng


A step in the long road

Lack of knowledge on what is an engineer


Get it right on Site

JCB and Bucyrus. Elec vs hydraulic


The emergence of Civilisation

The origin of blog footer


The Engineers put the Navigators on track(s)

JCB and Bucyrus. Hydraulic systems


An Engineer’s must-have

Design history of screw threads


Engineering Snapshot Header

Simple Design topics – but what car?


Can you stand the Engineering Heat?

Aircraft Accident – Engineer’s Responsibility for Students


What intrigues us?

Class discussion on engineering topics


“Engineering Connections” on BBC1

Good TV on civil, hydraulic and electrical engineering


The First Law in the Garden Centre

First Law in real life and an engineer’s approach


Stress Testing the new Nuclear Perceptions

Nuclear Power and failure modes


TV’s favourite Physicist comes good

Scientists and Engineers – on TV!


One place that computers go to die

Any old domestic computer emulations?


Don’t come in from the Cold

Life of fridges vs washing machines


Power by the Hour

Proposal for label on appliance cost


The Mighty Hunter felled by the Coalition

Defence Project economics


Don’t take ourselves too seriously

Single Dilbert ‘engineers’ joke


Trussed in the ‘Scientific American’

Title of Eng vs Scientists, Women Engineers


The One Hoss Shay

Verses on Optimum Design


Start the car; slow the wear

Lubrication design


Peterson and the danger at every corner

Stress concentrations, Comet failure and old reference


The eternal question: can you answer for it?

Concorde crash


BP Oil S – Last fragment before Jan 2011pill

BP Oil Spill & fix it myth


Catenary Support Eyesores

HS2 rail chance of improvement


Fingerprints were the Answer?

Corrosion cracking


Making its Mark

Vintage Scribing Block


Screw threads, slots and watches

Engineering efects in daily life


David Blunkett spins off

Politician misusing engineering terms


BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Oil Spill Two

Cause of Oil Spill


Quantas A 380 Incident – again

RR statement on cause


Quantas A380 Incident – My rethink

The Lad interpretation


BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill

The cause


Quantas A380 incident

First Thoughts


A startling nugget

Engineering vs Software quote


The Engineer as Rock God

IK Brunel and modern views


Dreamliner and a Nightmare

Who wants to be an engineer?

Boeing 787 Dreamliners are still grounded around the globe in February 2013 after the lithium ion battery problems became very bad in January 2012. Boeing says currently that it expects the aircraft to be back in service in late March or April. Something similar, but on a smaller scale, has happened before with laptops bursting into flames because of their lithium ion batteries.

This is the sort of problem that an engineer can face when any of her creations takes to the sky or arrives in numbers in the big, bad world. It may an aircraft, a car or a washing machine. It is what sometimes comes after the creative struggle of the Design process. Of course she hopes that the problems are not too terrifyingly large.

Now here, though, we have dozens of planes grounded for months and each worth two hundred million dollars [according to the Boeing website]. Nonetheless, dealing with similar things on a smaller scale are part of his job description for any engineer.

What information that seems to have seeped into the public prints is that the Lithium Ion batteries have not been adequately cooled and have taken fire. This is not something that aeronautical engineers want to happen to their babies. The aircraft designers or their colleagues, the Power Electronics Engineers, will be looking to see if some fault external to the batteries was the cause or whether the batteries installation has been designed too close together or whether the cooling systems designed for them are not sufficient.

The Lad is not a battery design expert, but he knows that lithium ion batteries are more like little furnaces rather than the EVEREADY, zinc oxide dry-batteries of his boyhood ‘tin’ torch. We can discover that like a boxer, pound for pound, these batteries are six times better than the standard lead acid battery in a car. This feature is gold dust for plane design engineers. But as a consequence of this, the lithium components are bursting with energy and therefore can get very hot. This, together with the essential [but flammable] solvent, means that a battery if it is hard-driven is continually on the verge of losing control to a runaway reaction and getting either very hot or even bursting into flames.

If it is a battery cooling problem for a modern airliner the solution will not be simple. No one can just say let us move them apart from each other or away from other bits of kit so that then they won’t get so hot. An aircraft may look large roomy and smooth from the outside.

An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show
An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show


In truth, inside there is packed a 3D maze of structure, engines, fuel tanks and cargo…sorry, passengers. Below is a picture that gives an indication of the complexity of the structure even before all the rest of the kit is installed.

An early Production Engineering Test Rig
An early Production Engineering Test Rig


Agreed! It is not a very informative graphic but it is the only one that seems to be available. Remember, that the Dreamliner has much clever engineering to allow the use of vast amounts of non-metallic components in its structure. How they do this is a close Boeing secret and not one they are likely to share with anyone in public anytime soon.

Certainly, the plane will be crammed inside with frames and stringers between which the batteries will be shoe-horned into their position. What is to be done then in these jam-packed spaces? Currently, rumour has it that

“Boeing has proposed insulating the battery’s lithium-ion cells from one another to prevent fire spreading, encasing the battery in a fire-proof shell and installing sensors.
It also proposes a venting mechanism to remove fumes which led to the emergency landing.”

The view of The Lad is that this can only be seen as a ‘workaround’ rather than a definitive solution which should involve arranging for the batteries not to over-heat. We can only await events.

A final thought on those ‘events’ is that, if the experience of The Lad is anything to go by, major problems like this will be astonishingly more complicated than The Lad is able to deduce in this post. The points that he makes above will only be the beginning of the beginning.

Such problems will have a large team entirely devoted to solving them. Such a team will consist of dozens of engineers. There will be design and development engineers, metallurgists, electrical and electronic engineers. As a team, they will be working, certainly, seven days a week and probably 24hrs a day. That’s what engineers do: their best efforts sometimes produce a problem so then they have to race to solve it. All the while that they struggle, massive present and future costs result in cash haemorrhaging straight down the drain – to waste.

Note that, while Boeing may say all will be well by March or April, at least one major customer airline expecting to be without its planes till May. So – that the above Boeing team list does not include the groups of programme guys working at the airlines. They are struggling to arrange replacement flights for passenger already booked to fly in planes are no longer available. The costs of this group and plane hire will undoubtedly land on the Boeing doormat in due course.

It emphasises that the professional engineer must always work with not only the obvious factors of ‘materials’ and the ‘forces’ developed by the machines but also with essential factor of ‘finance’.

How about this thought though. Problems such as this Dreamliner may be exhilarating – provided no one thinks that you were to blame. If you are in charge of the team solving them, The Lad guesses, that it can be satisfying. So! If you are the person who says ‘Bring it on!’ then maybe you are a worthy successor to Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Do you want to be an engineer?

A change of state for Dyson – back!

Sir James Dyson is famous for his engineered products and support for UK engineers and engineering. It is striking that this has come about from his work entirely devoted to domestic appliances. A few years back, The Lad would then have expected that such an engineering reputation would have had to have stemmed from Defence or Aerospace or Power Generation: industries that are awash with finance, opportunities and Research and Development (R&D) departments. Perhaps, alternatively, anywhere in Germany or the US – but we won’t go into that.

The air moving device, called the Air Multiplier by Dyson is one of his latest devices and, typically, it is a remarkable example of thinking laterally. That, together with painstaking development, brings a device to replace and improve the standard domestic fan.

The vacuum cleaner newly bought by The Lad is the DC41 Animal . As part of normal usage and maintenance of the cleaner; the internals brought into view reveal an engineering, tour de force of die cast plastic design.


That vital component of the engineering design process, the material, used by Dyson is presumably that marvel of an engineering plastic – ABS or a more modern derivative.



However the new design cleaner is not without minor glitches. Such glitches though, The Lad emphasises are part of a normal engineering development of even the highest level product. There is also a much more interesting effect that we will come to after a mention of the glitches.

The On/Off power switch has nowhere near the snap action [as in a light switch on the wall] that this user expects. A stab action of the finger frequently leaves the motor still running. That’s one. The other concerns the power flex, or cord. It is longer, which is good, but is not so easy to handle as was the flex of The Lad’s previous Dyson. It does not coil in the hand comfortably. Possibly the insulation elastomer is slightly too stiff in shear or there are inbuilt stresses. Either could lead to torsional coiling problems.

Now we come to the interesting thing.

Think about this. The Animal cleaner is definitely a more elegant engineering design than the products of other companies and also its Dyson predecessors.  Also, the design morphology is different in that the filters are in different locations in the air flow path. Despite this, the design is now back to the starting point. This starting point was a vacuum cleaner with a bag [which is a filter of course] that had to be changed; the dust collection efficiency declining if it was not.

From the user’s point of view; which has to be the engineer’s Gold Standard, things are now much the same as they were. Dyson recommends washing the 2 filters in the Animal every 3 months. Their extraction is as inconvenient as was changing a bag and the washing of the filters and their 24 hr drying time [perhaps longer in winter in the UK] is more inconvenient.

So here we are. This is a vacuum cleaner design that demands that its large filters have a 24 hr maintenance process to avoid loss of efficiency. The clever and elaborate cyclone technology is being overshadowed by the old [paper in one case] filter technology. One of the filters is in the shape of a bag. Sir James had better not let his engineers go any further down this design branch!

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.


“The Genius of Invention” watched

Here is the return of The Lad after an absence from cyberspace caused by an egregious failure by a new ISP. Let’s not go there; at the moment, at least. It is only a short comment on the first programme in a new series on BBC 1 called ‘The Genius of Invention’.

The first thought on looking at the title, was the familiar hobby-horse of The Lad: it’s not invention or inventors [or scientists – on another day], stupid, it’s engineers. Hold on a moment, though. It is perhaps not necessarily engineers who discover and investigate natural phenomena. It may, and often is, scientists like Faraday or even gifted amateurs who come up with the goods. So, let’s not go down that road this time. Let them have it as a title.

OK, now the programme. Visually and technically it was pretty good. Graphics that The Lad saw of the ideas behind the Newcomen and Watt machines were excellent.

With James [steam condenser] Watt at its centre, this edition promises well for the following three programmes. Each of which has at its centre one of Frank [jet engine] Whittle, Michael [electric power] Faraday and Charles [turbine] Parsons.

Fronting the presentations was Dr [medical not PhD] Michael Mosley. His ‘wingmen’ were Dr Cassie Newland, University of Bristol industrial archaeologist, and finally, thanks to the Gods of TV Commissioning, an engineer. This was Professor Mark Miodownik, engineer, materials scientist and Professor of Materials and Society at UCL. A skewed team; no doubt the producers think it rakish. So: not encouraging.

Moving on, though. At least it was set in a real place, Drax Power Station: currently the biggest coal-fired power station in the UK and providing 7% of the power for the whole of the UK on its own in this one place. It is a place that is both real and important in the everyday world and in engineering terms. Sadly the first real person representing engineers was in overalls. And male. He probably does wear them though for his work as he was the overhaul manager. Notice that. He was not the design engineer or the manufacturer.

The vast size of the building and the scale of the ‘set dressing’ imposed themselves on the viewer. It should give pause for thought for any “small is good” advocates. Consider the magnitude of the task for small scale power generation to replace this place and be a significant solution to power generation in the modern world. That is nearly 4000MW for 24 hrs a day, every day.

The distant views of the presenters talking to their cameraman was a bit gimmicky but at least it gave an idea of the scale of the Drax hardware that surrounded them and are part of the world of the power generating engineer.

The dalliance with a large Drax stop valve lost a bit in translation being as the hardware was lying on its side on the floor. Its height, The Lad guessed, was at least twice that of the human beings, if not more; a striking image that simply did not appear.

Yes, you are right. The Lad is jealous. Oh to be able to direct such forces toward his take on engineering on a prime time, main stream, TV channel.

The next programme is devoted to Speed. It will, one imagines, introduce Frank Whittle at least. Certainly Rolls-Royce will continue with another of its recent starring roles on TV. Money could not buy this advertising exposure.

‘Nerd’ who skewered the Heavens

Neil Armstrong died on the 25 August 2012 aged 82. He had been the first human being to set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969. NASA paid tribute here. He had earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University and a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He flew as a fighter pilot for the US Navy from 1949 to 1952 and during the Korean War he flew 78 combat missions.

Early in the Second World War, the then UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill famously said this.

“When I warned them[the French Government about a year earlier]that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!’ “ 

Armstrong was widely quoted in the many obituaries as calling himself just “a nerdy engineer”. Some nerd! Some engineer!

Armstrong and X15
Armstrong was a test pilot for the Rocket X 15.

Nerds spend their time focussed on some obscure object of their affections, frequently no further than their computer monitor, tablet screen or smart phone. Armstrong though, before the Moon, had been not just an engineer but a test pilot for the X 15 plane at the boundaries of Space. How about that? Most engineers can, and do, only dream of that career. Then he went one better: no, it must be ten better! In this case, it was rocket science. To the Moon.

Armstrong on the Moon
The only good photo of Armstrong on the Moon surface. All other photos were of Buzz Aldrin taken by Armstrong.

Nine months after the first Moon landing in April 1970, Apollo 13 had an explosion when it was half way between the Earth and the Moon. Then the wisdom of the choice of each crew member to be a combination of sharp intellect and engineer paid off. The crew returned to Earth safely. Perhaps rather than ‘safely’, that ought to be ‘successfully’: such a gigantically risky voyage, and indeed the preceding first Moon landing itself, can hardly be called safe. Courage there was yes, by the tonne, but also engineering technology as automatic reflex.

The ‘nerd’ quote, according to some, also referred to him being “white socks wearing”. Here, The Lad is reduced to incomprehension of this Americanism. How can this become connected to ‘nerdishness’? Answer comes there none.

RIP Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.


Automatic Parking on Mars

Rover landed
Go Curiosity. Courtesy NASA


The Lad watched the NASA website on the morning of Monday, August 6th 2012. There was a live feed from the Flight Control Room in Pasadena as the Mars lander Curiosity was finally deposited on the surface of Mars.

This was no mean feat, for one reason, as the lander was a vehicle as big as a car. For another reason, several other attempts to put vehicles onto Mars have failed. Students should note that, famously, there was a crash landing rather than a controlled descent cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The cause? The calculations supporting the descent were based on a confusion of metric units with imperial units.

Hasn’t every practising engineer suffered something similar? Luckily he or she will not have done it in such a crucial situation or, if so, will have managed to recover the error before disaster was committed to paper or, worse, hardware. Such a risk is exactly the enemy with which the engineer wrestles every day. She or he tries to haul pride out of the successful design of a large or small project. It is a major part of what every engineer does. Then it is not an error in an exam question; it is real.

Curiosity systems
Some of the systems on Curiosity. Courtesy of NASA.


One of the most difficult features of the engineering task was communication with the craft as it approached Mars. Quite simply, Odyssey, carrying Curiosity, could hear no radio instruction for 14 mins even at the speed of light and could not return any data, as to what it is doing for example, for the same period. It had to operate automatically, deciding what to do from its own pre-programmed instructions and its own instrumentation resources.

Another remarkable difference between this Martian landing and the Moon landings was the engineering of the descent process. These differences were true engineering and not science. Curiosity was very heavy [nearly 1000kg or one ton] yet needed, with only limited stored energy, to be able to move over the Martian landscape for at least a Martian year. Every part of the vehicle had to be highly efficient in its function with not a gramme to spare.

They set the delivery design criterion to limit the landing shock to be no greater than those which they were expecting as it roved over the boulders and pot holes in the Mars landscape. The vehicle would have, inescapably, to be designed to resist these anyway.

Curiosity was too massive for gas-filled shock absorbing balloons. The design engineers could not justify heavy, mechanical, shock absorbers. They would be used only during the landing and be, ever after, dragged around as so much dead weight. How about retro-rockets firing away merrily right down to the surface under the computer control of a modern radar altimeter? The problem with this is that the violent dust storm kicked up would damage or destroy the vehicle control and scientific systems. Their solution is remarkable.

In the Entry Descent and Landing [EDL] phase, Mars gravity began accelerating the vehicle, Odyssey, towards Mars at many thousands of miles per hour. But then the resistance of the Martian atmosphere was used to slow it down. It converted the vast, kinetic energy of Odyssey into red heat at the face of the conical vehicle. So far so good; we have done it a thousand times before when bringing craft back to Earth. Trouble is that because the Mars atmosphere is much, much thinner than that of the Earth; we can lose only a relatively small amount of the kinetic energy. So, when it gets to be very low and close to the surface it is still going at a hell of a lick. So a giant parachute is then deployed to slow it down some more. That is alright too, for we have done this successfully many times before on Earth. Then though, we were landing in the sea or had heavy shock absorbers.

So what now for the engineers? Now they come to the stickiest bit. Yes, retro-rockets were used to bring the vehicle to zero velocity. The thing is that it was designed so that, when it came to a halt, it was not on the ground. It was several metres above it: here it solemnly hovered too high for the rockets to kick up too much dust. Now break out the Sky Crane. Curiosity left Odyssey and was slowly lowered by nylon rope tethers to the ground.

Sky Crane
Lower away! courtesy of NASA


This is how NASA described the process.

In the depicted scene, the spacecraft’s descent stage, while controlling its own rate of descent with four of its eight throttle-controllable rocket engines, has begun lowering Curiosity on a bridle. The rover is connected to the descent stage by three nylon tethers and by an umbilical providing a power and communication connection. The bridle will extend to full length, about 25 feet (7.5 meters), as the descent stage continues descending. Seconds later, when touchdown is detected, the bridle is cut at the rover end, and the descent stage flies off to stay clear of the landing site.

Engineers realise that even the reliable connection and release of nylon rope cannot be a simple task. The risk of a failure needs to be vanishingly small when you are designing a tether mechanism with a billion dollar payload hanging on it. The mechanism MUST work when instructed by a computer after months in space. How would you do it?

Then what happens when the rockets of the Sky Crane are expended? Does it simply fall on top of Curiosity? Noooo! The engineers have designed it to do the ‘Flyaway’ where it scoots off to one side some way away. It is not clear to The Lad however whether, after this, it resembles anything more than a fast-food packet thrown out of a car window.

Congratulations to the engineers of NASA and its contractors for an excellent job. So far! They are hoping that Curiosity will not impose the proverbial fate on the NASA cat for many months to come and so is The Lad.

The Lad has to thank the NASA website for some of the background. Remember, this post contains only the simplest of discussions of only one of the problems faced by the engineers. Without any exaggeration, there will have been thousands and thousands of other problems and optimisation decisions. This Is Engineering.

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.