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Engineering a Better Faster Risotto

The Roman aqueducts were built because they were better, faster and cheaper than carrying water in vessels on donkeys. From the printing press to the steam train a better faster cheaper outcome was the principle goal. But all to often failure has become an acceptable outcome for space programs done on the cheap, says Rick Fleeter, who argues that a professional dedication to success must replace today's obsession with the bleeding egde.
Herndon - March 27, 2001
One of my nephews, due to circumstances beyond his control, ended up for a while in a very selective school. While he is blessed with many wonderful attributes, superior academic achievement isn't, and may not ever be, one of them. The faculty, quickly realizing this, spent an entire academic year not attempting to rescue him from drowning in academic quicksand, but rather figuring out how to get him to leave.

At first, I thought this was a bit illogical; shouldn't superior teachers do a superior job with a kid who clearly needs help? After all, most of the students there would be learning successfully on their own due to their innate motivations and abilities.

Now you know just how na�ve I am, my only excuse maybe being I'm not a parent or an educator. Let's admit what we all know: great schools turn out great grads because they start with great kids. The reason you want your kid to go to Brown is not necessarily the quality of instruction.

Maybe it is, but with the caliber of kids selected, ever so carefully for their prospects for future success, the teaching could be abysmal, and Brown would still graduate highly successful young adults. Therefore, it will be assumed your kid is a high-quality product by whatever grad school, job or scholarship he or she aims for next, and doors will open a bit more readily.

So all this madness over going to the best (most expensive and most distant) school despite the quality of the city college right down the block, is not madness. It, like most apparently irrational behavior, has a basis in quite rational thinking not immediately apparent.

(If you face away from the windshield, people driving cars seem to be quite irrational too. They sit in one position, eyes transfixed on the far field, and occasionally, suddenly, rotate a wheel or step on a pedal. It's lunacy.)

Secrets of Italian Cooking
Here's another example of cause and effect. Is Italian food so wonderful because the Italians are better cooks than everyone else? Or is it because Italy has an ideal climate and soil for growing the best tomatoes on earth, wonderful herbs like basil, olives that make superior olive oil, very hearty wheat and excellent wine grapes?

Perhaps it is also because the Alps and Apenines deposit huge quantities of fresh clear water on the country which filter through its soil and ideal rock crust, emerging eventually to be bottled as San Pelegrino.

The Italians grow up learning to discriminate great food from good, and won't settle for less, forcing restaurants to produce quality results. If you live in Italy the food remains impressive month after month, but you learn that it is as uniform as it is good.

The Italian cook is deep but not broad, not rewarded for innovation, but for replication of proven formulae and dishes. Within the narrow arena of pasta, sauces and vegetables, the product is remarkable, at least in part, because it is the result of daily practice.

Cause and effect in the aerospace industry resembles neither education nor Italian cooking. Products are usually brought in over budget, late, and often don't work. After one or more of those features is confirmed in a program, the search for the cause is undertaken, and we blame NASA, contractors, the budget, Better Faster Cheaper, lack of continuity, or even measurement units (now there's a scapegoat that won't fight back).

The Aerospace Engineer as Greek Tragic Hero

I know I'm getting incredibly old when people who seem incredibly young talk to me about their aerospace career plans. I know these people are way too young to have any other career than maybe a junior high school chess team, but I play along. I also have no idea why they are asking me--I just got started on this myself--but my ego prevents me from acknowledging my still-youthful ignorance. So I fake it with enhanced gusto.

And what I learn from these virtual infants, highlights the cause of our space engineering malaise, sort of like those bumper stickers about inheriting insanity from your kids. These virtual infants come preloaded with concepts inevitably resulting in late, over-budget, inoperable programs. Just as the cause of great Italian food is, in part, great ingredients, the cause of out-of control space programs may be found in the people wanting to staff them.

Here's a classic quote from a young MSc graduate aerospace engineer who turned down a hands-on job offer on a real spacecraft program funded and headed for flight in about three years in favor of a lunar mission with no funding, no payload and no organization: "It's a lonely road to run, but I want to see how far I can go." There goes a man whose career shall be a Greek tragedy. I hope he isn't building your satellite.

I know of no lawyers, medical doctors or top auto mechanics who feel their mission in life is to run a long and lonely road, to test themselves against impossible odds. This attitude is quite common, however, in athletes, dancers and artists for whom failure is virtually guaranteed. Few athletes win as much as they lose, and very few dancers succeed in going pro.

Those who do might enjoy a few years in the sun (a very dim sun that barely pays the rent in Brooklyn, requires long hours of rehearsal punctuated by barely eating, provides no benefits, and refuses to shine at all ever again if you are unfortunate enough to detach an Achilles tendon) and then too soon are rendered ancient by the younger, more flexible new generation just a few years behind them.

Most aspiring dancers and athletes forgo college (and sometimes high school), invest their life savings to keep training, and end up some of society�s youngest redundancies. That artists mostly live a life of difficulty, lack of acceptance or appreciation, and often poverty, is a clich� as much as it is a magnet to the career.

Personally, I'd prefer to have my satellite built by a lawyer or MD type of personality--whose job is to do what he's done before, do it perfectly, and get paid for it--rather than by a long distance marathon runner who's willing to cash in all the chips, give up college or a good job, and bust the piggy bank to take that one shot at making the Olympic team.

So here we sit at Lockheed or one of the other two aerospace companies left standing in our world of maniacal homogeneity, acting very businesslike, proposing in very formal documents to do very serious things while being ever so responsible with the customer�s precious money.

In fact, the place is stocked with young doers of the impossible, people looking for the ultimate engineering challenge, courageous individuals willing to fail, and fail again, and be knocked down by Murphy or some other manifestation of Cruel Fate, and rise yet again until they succeed, or retire.

Are they professionals? Or are they members of some sort of cult of heroism? Worse yet, the "customer" is not a married couple deciding whether to spend its hard-earned money on that Italian vacation or to finally get the kitchen remodeled, but a band of self-made heroes spending tax dollars ? a.k.a. someone else�s money. When things don�t go perfectly their shock is evident. Mine isn�t.

Engineers also tend to be Spartan. They aren't drawn to decoration, flamboyant personalities or embellishment. So they naturally accept the challenge to do a lot with a little, e.g., "I'll design that spacecraft with a notepad and pencil if I have to, and maybe a pocket calculator. I'll build a rocket to carry tourists routinely into orbit, for $one million. The West was won with a six shooter, a horse and a sneer. I saw that on TV, and we can conquer space by the force of our sheer will."

Nonchalance Rules!
No matter how skillfully we manage these cultists who staff our programs, the result will be as inevitable as the quality of the saffron risotto in a Milanese Trattoria.

When the surgeon cuts through your sternum one Monday morning after his or her tiring weekend of golf, bicycling and helping the kids with soccer and homework, to transplant a few of your cardiac arteries, you don't want the frazzled old Doc to be going for the ultimate in gusto. You don't want his or her attitude to be, "I can do this surgery without tools, nurses or an anesthesiologist, with a minimal budget." Nor do you want an attitude like, "I've never done this before, but I'm going to show the world the greatest quadruple bypass it's ever seen--quintuple maybe!"

We criticize surgeons for talking baseball scores while they cut and sew, but would you rather have them pouring over the pages of Gray's Anatomy, at the same time intently phoning all over the country for consulting support from other Docs while they look around for your appendix?

No. And though we don't like it when we read in Newsweek that the pilots of airliners sit up front at 36,000 feet doing 550 mph and mostly talk about real estate,... that's professionalism.

They don't sit there fully engaged in calculating time/speed/distance or bearings to way stations because they do that in their sleep, with not even so much as a calculator. They are hard-wired airplane handlers, and we would not want them any other way.

Professional bike racers don�t sit in the peloton cruising through a couple hundred kilometers of rolling French countryside talking, at over 40 km/hr, about gears, tires and training. In the pelotons of my personal experience, the talk is mostly about girlfriends, past, present and future.

But these young aerospace cultists don't have as goal one a successful, on-budget, on-schedule mission. They have as their life's focus to do something nobody before them has ever managed to do in space, and if they do it with less money than anybody thought possible, so much the better. They live and breathe space, and we are lured by a faith in their enthusiasm. Better they should be talking real estate and sports scores.

On Taking an Alcoholic Out For a Drink
Which brings me around to Better Faster Cheaper (BFC). It's a great concept, but preaching it to aerospace engineers is a bit like sending anorexics to Weight Watchers. Engineering is the incarnation of BFC. BFC is all we know. We built the Roman aqueducts because they were better, faster and cheaper than carrying water in vessels on donkeys. The Gutenberg press was much better, much faster and much cheaper than scribes. A steam locomotive beats the heck out of opening the West by horseback, and agriculture is better, faster and cheaper than hunting and gathering.

Agrarian life gave people enough time to start thinking up all the other BFC ideas which, taken collectively, we now refer to as culture, religion, science, education, philosophy, or even more collectively, modern life.

Engineers lay awake at night obsessed with BFC, a better bagel cutter, a more efficient transmission, a way to use the same bicycle for on-the-road travel and for in-the-basement exercise during ice storms.

That it took a NASA administrator who was originally an engineer to vocalize BFC as our touchstone is not surprising; he knows nothing else.

People who want to do things the BFC way are fortified by failure. They seek it because they know without failure you aren't innovating. Rather you are practicing techniques. Thus, we say "the practice of medicine" or "a law practice." I had not a single classmate in 10 years of college whose career plan was to open a practice in aerospace engineering.

But, in the case of BFC, engineers need to teach it to MDs, and in return, learn a bit about practicing a profession where innovation is not rewarded nearly so much as failure is avoided, where new ideas are making the difference between life and death, but not until we know they work. This is what is supposed to happen in a University. We learn about approaches other than our own rather than specializing immediately into the practice of our own ideas, a practice which makes imperfect.

And we need to cook with some different tomatoes. Space needs less of us Spartan visionaries, and more professionals who won't do it for its own sake, who won't jump into a program with insufficient time and money to do it right, and who demand the time and resources to mature new ideas before a mission, or a life, or a company, depends on them. People who accept no less than success in every project they do. Big or small. Now there's a radical vision of space.

Rick Fleeter is president of AeroAstro Corporation

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LEO's Open Road
the flipsideHerndon - Aug. 1, 2000
The American dream is a lot more than a house in the suburbs and hot dogs on the fourth of July. It includes a heterogeneous and gritty public school system which you have the freedom to pay big dollars not to send your kids to, and, in general, freedom from a lot of public stuff.

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