When I started writing this column 10 years ago, I was advised that one of the prime no-nos was commenting on current events. The thinking is, because of the time delay of a monthly publication, current events are no longer current and, in some cases, may have changed completely by the time you receive your copy. As a rule, it really is good advice.
I’m writing this piece a few days into February, and I’m going to break the rule this month. The tragic events of February 1, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, have focused my attention on this highest profile machine. To me, it represents the pinnacle of what we do in manufacturing. It’s probably the most complex machine ever created, and in it is a blend of all the technologies we have at our disposal. When it fails, it impacts us deeply because we know something about machines.
It’s rare that the general public of this country comes in contact, direct or indirect, with advanced technology. A failure in the space program is unfortunately one of the few exceptions to this. Because of the round-the-clock news coverage of the Columbia’s terrible fate, many more people are force fed technological and engineering information they otherwise would remain blithely ignorant of. This educational opportunity is fleeting. By the time you read this, I’m sure the coverage of this tragedy will be significantly reduced.
But in many ways the success of technology is measured by its transparency. Most car passengers don’t know or care how micro-finishing bearing and wear surfaces in an engine allow the manufacturer to warrant it for 100,000 miles. Airline passengers can’t see the dynamic balancing devices that reduce vibration on jet turbines spinning at high rpm as they are subjected to thermal and mechanical shocks flying across the country. Likewise, as complex a machine as the shuttle is, the space program has succeeded to a point of public complacency.
There is a huge difference in technical knowledge between a highly trained crew of seven astronauts hurtling through the atmosphere at Mach 16 and a family of five cruising along an Interstate highway. The family expects the car to perform as designed with little clue as to why. Astronauts know enough to understand how the space shuttle machine works and not take it for granted. Sadly their mission proved the rule that no machine is perfect. Near perfect is not good enough. NASA, and the manufacturers who serve it, will learn and be better for this tragedy. They will inch closer to perfect. If only there were a better way.