I pushed the button to turn off the night vision scope, but the eerie greenish image of the Utah desert landscape persisted. The characteristic cloud of sparkling noise continued to dance in my viewfinder making it look like the desert had been invaded by an army of crazed fireflies. Otherwise, the scene was devoid of any movement from the nocturnal desert life I had been seeking.
Somewhere, possibly thousands of miles away and maybe dead by now, there is an engineer for whom the design of this particular scope was a major project – someone who fought with colleagues over issues like the choice of materials in the image sensor, the scheme for light amplification, and the design of the power supply. Perhaps the project was some cold-war-era Soviet skunkworks design. Unlike me, this engineer understands (or understood) almost instinctively why this device continues to operate for several minutes after it is powered down. His story, however, is probably long forgotten.
It was the second week of my summer vacation (which will end in a few more days, sadly), and my wife and I were headed into Colorado for some camping, hiking, cycling, sightseeing and photography. I worried a little about how our Airstream trailer would pull over the several ten- and eleven-thousand-foot passes that separated us from our next day’s destination. I needn’t have been concerned. The electronic engine management system worked beautifully, adapting the fuel/air mixture for the high-elevation conditions. The six-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly as we ascended and descended the steep and winding roads, keeping us always in the right gear for the situation. The electronic inertial trailer brake control system kept the trailer nicely where I wanted it – behind my tow vehicle rather than in front. Each part of each of these systems was probably the result of a project that was a major milestone in some engineer’s career, and the unwritten history of each could fill a novel with rejected ideas, unexpected design problems, and heroic late-night efforts by passionate professionals captivated by the pursuit of the perfect solution.
Our next destination was a one-day detour to visit Jim, a childhood family friend of my wife’s whom she hadn’t seen for over twenty years. Jim lives in a beautiful house at the edge of a small town in Colorado. Although he’s over seventy years old, he’s extremely active, and we filled a day with ATV riding along treacherous, rocky, and steep trails in the Rocky Mountain forest, hiking up a remote path to a breathtaking waterfall, and taking a scenic drive through beautiful mountain meadows. I connected well with Jim. He likes riding ATVs – I enjoy bicycling. He crews hot air balloons – I fly light planes. We both enjoy and appreciate art. Jim is a retired mechanical engineer – I was an electronics and software engineer for over twenty years before taking a stab at writing and publishing.
That night, Jim had beer – I drank wine. Eventually, the conversation moved to our engineering backgrounds. Jim explained that he had spent his career as a mechanical engineer with special expertise in thermal management. He asked me to retrieve a “Mr. Coffee” box from the top shelf of a back-room closet. The box, which once had held a fairly pedestrian piece of mechanical engineering, now was marked on top with a brief, handwritten permanent-marker notation – “NASA Tiles”.
Jim opened the box and extracted a well-worn folded diagram showing the location of every tile on the underside of a space shuttle. Apart from the distinctly non-rectangular outline of the object, I could have been looking at a LUT map or floorplan for a medium-sized FPGA. Each of perhaps 20,000 tiny regions on the chart was marked with a specific code unique to that tile. Jim narrated with a fluency that comes only from years of deep immersion into a major engineering project. These were called “home plate” tiles. These others were “pork chops”. A row near the back of the wing section were called “ski slopes” and their matching counterparts “toboggans”. He extracted a few actual tiles from the box and explained further. This is a high-emittance coating that helps to radiate excess heat into deep space. This is a felt-like fabric that is used beneath some of the tiles to protect them from vibration and expansion of the underlying aluminum skin during the trauma of ascent and re-entry.
Jim had spent a career in the middle of some of the most famous and controversial engineering projects in history, and the artifacts and explanations he offered me at his dinner table showed the depth and richness of the forgotten history of even some of the best-documented engineering endeavors ever attempted. Jim described a point in the effort to recover Apollo 13 when the team had considered separating the service module from the command module. Jim was vehemently opposed to it. The service module, it seems, provided significant thermal insulation to one side of the command module. Without that protection, precious heat would have radiated into space at a treacherous pace, probably freezing the crew before they could make it home to Earth. Jim recalled debates on the shuttle program about replacing oblation surfaces on top of the craft with tiles to improve re-usability and decrease cost.
The stories stored in Jim’s memory were, in many ways, the same as those carried in the collective conscious of all the engineers who have spent their careers practicing the craft of problem solving. These are the small dramas that are never told or written. They are shared in passing with colleagues, but their deep technical nuance and subtlety make them far too specialized to share even with family or friends. As engineers, however, they occupy a significant chunk of our life experience, invisible even to those who know us best. These holes in the fossil record of engineering are the questions constantly spinning in our heads – the mini-narratives replaying over and over in our idle thoughts. They are the real answer we often can’t give when our partner or spouse breaks our distant gaze with the familiar question “Honey, what are you thinking about?”
We work for some future family that coasts safely down a steep mountain pass, unaware that our ingeniously-designed FPGA-based brake controller is keeping them safe from a deadly encounter with the guardrail, or that our DSP design is part of the GPS navigation system that’s guiding them along the shortest path to their destination. In our minds, these people will unknowingly benefit from our creative efforts, and part of our job satisfaction comes from that anonymous contribution.
It is a curious force that motivates us as engineers to spend significant chunks of our lives grappling with little-known challenges, seeking answers to questions most people will never even ask, and passionately pouring our hearts and souls into obscure projects that may never see the light of day. We are not motivated by the desire for fame – clearly we would have chosen different careers if that had been our goal. Neither are we driven solely by the quest for profit – most successful engineers are possessed of an intellect that could make them more financially successful in a variety of other fields. The intangible thing that powers us through the rolling hills of an engineering career is the almost irresistible challenge of an unsolved problem. We are pulled by an insatiable desire to artfully craft the perfect compromise, a solution whose subtleties are probably invisible to almost everyone but ourselves and which, in all likelihood, will vanish into the vortex of technological achievements that define the accumulated know-how of our culture.