Defense Focus: Engineer truths -- Part 2

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Nov. 28, 2007 at 1:32 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- At any American space center, the Gagarinskaya manned launch complex at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan would have been scrapped decades ago to make way for new, bright, shiny -- and expensive -- launching pads. But though the Russian engineers at Baikonur have not hesitated to create new, state-of-the-art launching silos whenever they need them -- as they have for the Dnepr program -- they continue to achieve cost-effectiveness out of their tough, tested and wonderfully reliable old operating systems.

"The projected age of any of our launching systems is estimated at 10 years from construction, then another five years after a first refit and overhaul, then finally for another two and a half years after a second overhaul," Gagarinskaya senior engineer Alexei Vasiliev told United Press International in a 2004 interview. But the Gagarinskaya complex has not been refitted in more than 20 years. The last repair was in 1983.

"In Russia, we get used to stretching out the operational life of our equipment, and it still works perfectly," the old engineer said. "Today, 80 percent of all the manned launches of our Russian program are still carried out from here. We send up your American guys, too."

The examples of Vasiliev and Gagarinskaya are worth pondering in many ways. They both run counter to American experience and practice in its civilian and military space programs over the past 30 years -- and against the practice of U.S. industrial defense contractors on other military heavy engineering programs for aircraft, ships and vehicles, too.

Contrary to much popular belief and fashion, age and experience are essential to the prolonged successful operation and maintenance of any complex engineering system. Every engine, wiring system or complex mechanism to transform or transmit energy has its own peculiarities, tolerances and malfunctions, and it takes accumulated experience to acquire the necessary knowledge and data to keep it operating at maximum efficiency.

When there is rapid turnover of staff, when mechanics and engineers are encouraged to rotate out of their jobs after only a couple of years, and when it is widely regarded as career suicide to stay at the same responsible, but not prestigious, position like Vasiliev for more than five years, let alone more than 30, then that kind of institutional experience will not be preserved.

Later generations of engineers will lack the familiarity with the complex systems they operate that their predecessors had. The breakdown of communications between older, subordinate engineers who worked on the Morton Thiokol boosters for the space shuttle Challenger and the younger generation of managers who held power over them but did not heed their warnings before the January 1986 disaster was a classic case in point.

The concept of the central importance of accumulating experience with advancing age to make technology work runs counter to many of the most deeply held myths in American society. Americans worship youth, innovation and dynamism. They do not associate technological breakthroughs with advancing age, but with youth. Yet Wernher von Braun was in his 50s when he created the Saturn V rocket that sent American astronauts to the moon. And Sir Sidney Camm, the creator of the legendary Hurricane fighter that played the key role in winning the 1940 Battle of Britain, was in is 60s when he designed the revolutionary P 1154 Harrier STOVL or jump-jet that remains a mainstay of the U.S. Marine Corps to this day.

Vasiliev's example shows how it is not just obvious geniuses who are the exception to the rule that high-tech expertise can only reside among the young. For successful military technology and design do not depend solely, or even mainly, on revolutionary new miracles breakthroughs: To make machines work, the more hands-on experience you can accumulate in working with them, the better. And in war, it is crucially important to make a lot of machines work as long as they possibly can. To achieve all that, there is no substitute for experience. And it is the kind of experience that usually takes decades to acquire.

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