[FPSPACE] Re: Russian space priesthood
Robert G Kennedy III
Thu, 28 Sep 2000 15:55:47 -0400
Keith Gottschalk wrote:
> At last the nonsense of insisting space tourists must spend
> Can the above be learnt within one 8 hour day? That might
>encourage a few more millionaire customers.
Good idea, although I bet the "space priesthood" in Russia would hate it.
So would the domestic version over here. You'd have to refit/re-engineer
Mir a bit, e.g. putting red stickers/paint/labels over every
control/button/lever that is verboten, on pain of getting the offender
spaced (tossed out the airlock sans suit).
Relaxing (or not) the daunting flight preparation requirements for would-be
tourists would be a telling illustration of how much influence MirCorp
really has with RKK Energiya.
I grant that spaceflight is an extraordinarily technical and dangerous
activity in which any one of numerous possible mistakes can get you killed.
But as a trained design engineer, I believe that much of the technical
difficulty is simply due to bad man-machine interfaces (ergonomics). Space
travel could be made far less challenging, and safer as a result, simply by
improving the human-factors aspect of the design.
I offer four items in support, if not absolute proof of this thesis:
(1) The Three Mile Island nuclear accident was principally caused, and then
aggravated, by bad design of the operator controls. It is possible today to
run a modern nuclear power station with just three workstations - I've seen
it done. Actually, it can be done with one, but triple-redundancy is the
rule in nukes.
(2) Pete Conrad & co. proved that you could launch a new rocket (the DC-X)
with just three guys sitting at three workstations inside a semi-trailer,
plus a few more ground crew outside.
(3) Compare a modern "glass" cockpit with the ridiculously complex,
distracting instrument panel of a old Boeing 707, for instance. General
aviation would be far more accessible if aircraft were designed more like
cars. Likewise with space travel.
(4) Compare the capability, business attitude, and operating requirements
of a present-day PC with a 1960s-era mainframe computer sitting in a glass
room attended by its "priests" (before GUIs and mice). Note that none of
these improvements were conceived at IBM; they had to come from outside.
I believe there are at least four political reasons why this doesn't happen.
(1) Existing practitioners are justifiably proud of their hard-won
technical competence. They don't want to cheapen their accomplishment by
letting in the masses. Having known quite a few of them, I think Russian
techies are even more elitist than here, if you can imagine that.
(2) Likewise, existing practitioners are proud of their expertise, but also
jealous of it. They don't want to obsolesce themselves right out of a job.
(3) Design engineers are fundamentally resistant to change, even when
so-called "design conservatism" is in fact more dangerous. Furthermore,
they generally don't talk to future users, just existing ones, which
distorts their perspective on what's possible.
(4) Keeping things complex and expensive serves the interest of the
bureaucracies who are the gatekeepers to space.
I am not saying space travel should be dirt cheap or available to any idiot
- by its very nature, it will always require strict standards, broad
cooperation, sophisticated labor, high performance materials, and vast
amounts of energy compared to activities on the ground. Nevertheless, much
if not most of its present difficulty is by choice, not nature.
Robert Kennedy, PE