Friday, May 31, 2013


Did you know that the Apollo 11 launch date of July 16 was also the anniversary of Trinity, the first atom bomb test performed in Alamogordo, New Mexico? The Manhattan project was a $2 billion effort that led to the birth of the atomic bomb. America’s space race, at a cost of $20 billion, culminating in the landing on the moon, was the obvious successor to that previous successful government and science project.

Now we think about the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with their high caffeine energy drinks, take-out food, and chips are just following in the footsteps of the NASA engineers and their pocket protectors, Mexican takeout, evaporating hotplate coffee, and ashtrays filled with smoldering cigarette butts.

In so many ways, the race to the moon was a sequel to the preceding race for atomic mastery, including the competition with Russia. Both projects were driven by Third Reich émigrés. Trinity and Alamogordo are about 80 miles from the Apollo origins at Fort Bliss where von Braun’s rocket team practiced their art and only 120 miles from where the American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard tested the thrust of the same super-chilled fuels that would send Apollo 11 to the Moon.

These two great achievements of war time engineering, the first a hot war and the second a cold war, should be added to the other great American engineering accomplishments from the Erie Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Empire State Building, the Panama Canal, the Interstate Highway System, the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hoover Dam, telecommunications satellites, the Internet, and the Global Positioning System. These engineering accomplishments are a key force in the American identity. It was engineers who created these foundations of modern life, and our civilization could not exist without the big pipes, the vast roads, the power grids, the dams, and the people-and-cargo-carrying vehicles of heroic engineering and big science.

Often the study of ancient civilizations will focus on their engineering accomplishments from the pyramids of Egypt (and South America) to the buildings of Greece to the roads of Rome. Following the Renaissance, Galileo proved that the speed of a pendulum remains constant, a fact that his engineer son, Vincenzio, used to create an accurate pendulum clock. This shows engineering producing practical devices based on new scientific theories. However, sometimes the engineering precedes the scientific breakthrough. The steam engine, perfected by engineer James Watt, came before Sadi Carnot’s theories of thermodynamics based on the successful device.

At the founding of America, the political leaders recognized the importance of enlightenment and revered scientist and engineers, considering their work both an inquiry into the very stuff of the cosmos, and a contribution to the greater good of all of mankind.

Modern miracles were unleashed, including steel, refined petroleum, aluminum, and plastic used to build trains, trolleys, buses, subways, cars, planes, and jets. The darkness was pushed aside by the electric light bulb and indoor climates were changed by central heating and air conditioning as well as refrigeration. Soon came sewing machines, cameras, telephones, stoves and ovens, and washing and drying machines taking on the drudgery of everyday life. Movies, radio, television, and ultimately computers and video games transformed how we spent our leisure time.

These accomplishments were often celebrated by expositions and events displaying the technology of the age. London’s Crystal Palace of 1851 and France's Universal Exposition in 1889 with the construction of the Eiffel Tower to New York’s 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs gave a preview of the technology that would transform modern civilization … a prediction that has become true in ways that those early celebrations would have never expected.

With the advent of computers, cell phones, and modern entertainment technology, our lives have been so transformed by the process and products of engineering that we are touched by it from the moment we’re awaken by our clock radios to the end of the evening watching the news or some other TV program on the over 200 channels available in the comfort of our own living rooms and bedrooms.

It is easy to spot a young engineer in making. That’s the boy (or girl … but sadly, usually the boy) who wants to know how things work. They may try to discover how through the process of disassembly. The desire to know how and why things work and the drive to understand the physical universe are common among those who have the title "engineer."

Often the first glimmer of interest comes from an erector set or a chemistry kit they encounter in their youth, or perhaps by the models of planes and rockets they build the in the quiet solitude of their room or basement. It can also come from the wild speculation contained in the science fiction genre. In our latest times these ideas may be sparked by computer games, the Science or Discovery channel on TV, or from movies and videos. It can come from looking up at the moon — or the stars — and imagining "seeking out new worlds and going boldly where no man has gone before."

I recall my childhood and those special Sunday nights when the Wonderful World of Disney would broadcast a program with a science theme — from an explanation of nuclear chain reaction to tales of space travel and rocket design. These were “Tomorrowland” presentations that were always my favorites.

The interesting back story here is that Walt Disney became obsessed with the idea of creating a California version of Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. Roy, his brother and the Walt Disney Company's business manager, refused to allow the corporation to invest in such a"crazy" scheme, so Walt convinced a fledgling television network ABC to offer $4.5 million in loan guarantees for the amusement park in exchange for a Disney television program, both to be called "Disneyland." The television version became America's most popular TV show, and when Disney and ABC wanted to create three episodes showcasing the "Tomorrowland" section of the park, producer Ward Kimball hired as on-air consultants three of Collier magazine's writers, including von Braun, the German rocket master, who was trying desperately to convince the US government of the possibility of a flight to the moon. (Actually Mars, but the moon was a good first destination.) A master at public relations, von Braun used these programs to spark the imagination of a nation.

So, on March 9, 1955, the premiere Disney episode, "Man in Space," effectively established von Braun as a national symbol of rocket science. He famously stated, "We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming." Spoken as a true government employee. So imagine me, an eight-year-old kid, imagination stoked by the animations of rockets to Mars. Is it any wonder I ended up as an engineer. It's just surprising I didn't stow away on that first moon rocket!

Sadly, in our modern age of concern of terrorists and school shootings, that kids playing with gunpowder or chemicals … especially if explosions are involved … are strongly suppressed, often kicked out of school, and discouraged from their creativity. Coincidentally, just yesterday, I visited a robotic STEM project at a local elementary school here in Virginia Beach and spoke with the kids and observed them turning their ideas into practical applications that may some day police the beautiful beachfront, picking up litter and trash. The engineering spark is in their eyes as they don their protective goggles and drill, saw, and bolt together their vision of a litter collection robot. Today they will be competing in a 35 school challenge to see whose robot can best perform the task. "Hands-on," that's what makes an engineer. It was a most refreshing and inspiring visit by yours truly, and I was both impressed and enheartened by what I saw and heard.

Perhaps there will always be a division between engineers unable to engagingly describe their work to nonspecialists, and citizens uneducated enough to be interested in the details of science and engineering. As Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” It’s a modern day paradox.

I suppose I will always be a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow …

Science is about what is, and engineering is about what can be.

— Neil Armstrong

Although the twentieth century as a period of terror of war and struggles between nations and societies to overcome injustice with little respite in this current century, still technology has also enabled the reporting of these images and traumas and has brought images of these injustices and a conversation regarding their elimination into the homes of anyone with a television or a computer. John Pierce, the engineer who fathered Telstar, the first satellite to relay television signals across the Atlantic, said that engineering helped create a world in which no injustice could be hidden.

We have the tools to communicate and coordinate. You can thank the engineers for that. The question now is what to do with those tools. What will you do? Now I've got to go find my pocket protector. I know where my slide rule is.

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