Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Range of Solutions

Engineering progress is typically a gradual thing. Usually the most dramatic advances are still stepwise, like moving the pieces of a sliding puzzle slowly into place. A new material or process is discovered, which allows previous design limits to be pushed back, which tips the balance in favor of different solutions than were previously infeasible or impractical. These are advances like the advent of molded plastics, which let us create cheap products of almost arbitrary shape rather than being constrained by the limits of sheet metal.

Every once in a while though -- usually in time of war, sadly -- rather than taking measured, safe steps forward, engineering goes for the standing long jump. New technologies must be invented whole, with the advancements in materials, processes and design techniques to fall in behind, like ripping the tiles from the sliding puzzle and putting them back without the benefit of knowing the final picture. To me, these are the times when the nature of human ingenuity is thrown most strongly into relief. When we don't have the luxury of taking the next logical step, how do we intuitively fill in the inevitable gaps of uncertainty?

Take the space race of the 50s and 60s, when brash yankees and cunning russkies believed that their way of life depended on hurling as much technology as far from the earth as possible -- and they did it in near complete isolation from each other. When the intuitive leaps were that broad, we had pretty different solutions to essentially the same enormous problem.

Just getting off the ground, we had different approaches to building something with a design spec as simple as: a big cylindrical fuel tank with rockets strapped to it:

Titan II and Vostok

On left, the American Titan II rocket was simple, with a pair of high-efficiency rocket motors; on right, the Russian Vostok used a mass of motors housed in dramatically spreading nacelles.

Then once we got to orbit, things were even more interesting:

Apollo and Soyuz docking

Here we have the Apollo capsule on the left, docking with the Russian Soyuz on right, on a mission seemingly designed to point out the vast differences in our approaches to space flight.

And finally, once we got to the moon:

LRV and Lunokhod

We Americans manage to send up an efficient wheeled platform capable of moving a farm of instruments and a human driver. The Russians? A stout robotic rover with curiously shaped measurement appendages -- ahead of its time and a bit alien looking.

The Soviet stuff always seems somewhat more organic, more elaborate. Whether or not it's literally true, the technology of us Americans seems designed for space travel of precision and efficiency, while the Russians were building machines to challenge the mysterious cosmos. Certainly there were practical differences in available technology, materials and even goals, but there are thematic differences in designs here that to me speak to something deeper.

I always find that when engineers make the intuitive leaps in design (even the small ones), they subconsciously draw upon assumptions of how things should be. Did differences in Russian and American science fiction put different visions of the future in the heads of engineers-to-be? Or do the smooth forms of Russian designs speak to a greater cultural willingness to take risks rather than stick to the platonic solid shapes of American designs that are more confidently predictable with slide-rule calculation? Or maybe there are simply differing aesthetic sensibilities at play -- Shostakovich vs. Bernstein.

When we have to make the intuitive leaps, perhaps it is then that our dreams are given form.