Sunday, February 22, 2004

Never, Ever Leave Home Without Duct Tape

The EETimes has an article with the details of what caused the Spirit rover to breakdown, and how they went about debugging and repairing the problem. I've read some criticisms of NASA based on the 'failures' of previous missions and the bugs in the current one, and as an engineer I can state fairly authoritatively that the critics have got a severe perspective problem. This lack of perspective is shared by a majority of people who just take for granted the miraculous things that happen around them every day, without acknowledging that behind the scenes there are some very brilliant people working against astronomical (literally, in this case) odds to find solutions to problems that would have been science fiction just a few years ago.

Remember that scene in Apollo 13 where the project lead dumped a bunch of stuff (like socks, plastic bags, duct tape, and notebooks) on the table and told the engineers to design a solution that would allow the CO2 scrubbers from the damaged command module to work in the landing module, where the astronauts were in danger of CO2 poisoning? Fortunately the stakes aren't always that high, but engineers are always being handed projects that are similarly urgent, critical, and absurdly constrained. The one thing NASA engineers had going for them is motivation: if they failed, people died. For the average engineer, failure just means that some overpaid managers get smaller bonuses this year.

Thirty years ago computers were large unwieldy machines, and debugging a program might involve making new punch cards or paper tapes. (In the really early days of mechanical relays and electrical valves, debugging might actually involve removing an insect from the guts of the hardware.) Just three decades later, scientists basically performed an operating system upgrade on a computer sitting inside a robot that had just completed a three-hundred million mile trip to a foreign planet. I see no failure there... I see a triumph of human ingenuity. So qwitcherbitchen.