Machines in Space
Previously I researched and wrote a massive tome which describes a progression from what Robert Gordon would describe as Industrial Revolution #2 to IR #3:
- IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;
- IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and
- IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.
I inserted the developments of high-speed jet transport and rocketry/space systems into the mix, primarily because I feel (and believe I can prove) the Space Age spawned the Information Age we currently live in and the drive to automate. From my perspective, it is not a coincidence that innovations appear to have stagnated recently.
The Key Hole series of reconnaissance satellites culminated with the development of the KH-11 Kennan’s digital, real-time feed in 1976. NASA’s interplanetary missions, which have been the catalyst of startling discoveries such as water flowing on Mars recently, were all conducted by automated spacecraft. Finally finding a solution that had eluded the WS-117L and the SAMOS concepts was the crowning achievement in the field of automation—the KH-11’s intended predecessor, the KH-10 Manned Orbiting Laboratory had been supplanted by superior systems, or so it seemed.
Space Debris and Mechanical Failure
Fully automated machines have a severe weakness, due to the fact that DARPA has not yet invented self-healing materials (that we know of). Humanity cannot engineer out human interaction with machines yet for a very simple reason: machines cannot repair themselves. Objects in orbit actually take quite a beating, both from natural threats like micrometeorites and artificial 17,500 mph “space junk.” Because much of the KH-11 program still remains classified, not much can be gleaned concerning what lengths the NASA and the NRO have had to go to maintain those satellites. But if the Hubble Telescope is any guide (the Hubble apparently was based off of the KH-11’s design), repairs are necessary every three years or so. Shuttles were even ‘chartered’ to put new classes of reconnaissance satellites into orbit for the CIA and NRO, so NASA certainly had the opportunity to perform clandestine maintenance.
But the effects in the atmosphere are even starker. The precise number of UAVs that have crashed isn’t known, but it has topped 100 (100 have occurred in the last six years alone). What is more startling is the cause of crash—the majority of them do not involve enemy fire that would be expected in war zones or the ever-present ‘pilot error’ cudgel (though UAVs have been both shot down and crashed by their operators at times). More often than not, some sort of mechanical problem caused the drone to hurtle to the ground.
The number of losses has and continues to be explained away as “teething problems,” but this ignores reality—nothing but long-distance control automation is even remotely new in UAVs. Turboprop and turbojet engines date from the 1940s, and so do swept wings. Fly-by-wire flight control systems were first employed on the CF-105 Arrow in the 1950s and the Concorde in 1969 (and hydraulically powered flight controls are older than turbine engines). Yet it is ‘engine failure’ and ‘mechanical failure’ that are the biggest culprits in drone crashes—i.e. the mature, proven technologies. I could conjecture about why this is, but Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, says it best on page 7:
We often hear of the need for an “upskilling” of the workforce, to keep up with technological change. I find the more pertinent issue to be: What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?
Could it be the U.S. Air Force has incapable aircraft mechanics? Possibly, but more likely the problem lies with recognizing that the electronics sometimes aren’t helping the mechanic. A couple of acquaintances that fly for the airlines told me three different stories that put this into perspective. Automation is even built into maintenance systems, to engineer out human error, apparently.
The first was an inflight loss of an engine, caused by the complete mechanical failure of the turbofan’s FADEC (Full Authority Duel Electronic Control). The unit had two electronic channels for redundancy, which apparently doesn’t help if the device itself breaks down. The engine was fully functional mechanically, but without an operative FADEC the engine shuts down. Turns out the same engine on the same jet had failed three weeks prior, but the FADEC hadn’t completely destroyed itself yet. The mechanic’s corrective action in the aircraft logbook noted “ops check good.”
The second was a failure of secondary flight controls, known as slats after takeoff. Restricted to both slower airspeeds and altitude due to the extended slats, the flight had to return to the point of origin and the flight canceled. After the fact, the flight crew discovered that mechanics tested the slat/flap system after electronic reset, remarking “ops check good” in the aircraft logbook. The following day, the same crew flew the same aircraft and had a slat failure after landing. As the crew was now in a different city, different mechanics discovered that an actuator was grinding underneath one of the slats. Turns out the slat failure was mechanical, not electronic as the previous mechanics stated.
The third was yet another engine failure. Shutting down during landing, the crew taxied to the gate. Returning the following morning, the crew discovered the mechanics could not replicate the issue, remarking “ops check good” in the aircraft logbook.
This phenomenon is not limited to aviation. Going back to Matthew Crawford, the Shop Class is Soulcraft author frequently cites the fact that many newer German-made cars no longer have a dipstick, and are practically impossible for the owner to service the oil himself. A relative of mine (an auto mechanic trained by the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s, coincidently) once remarked to me that he could no longer repair vehicles manufactured after the early 2000s, due to the complicated computer monitoring and operational equipment. Question: are 21st century mechanics being trained to fix the vehicle, or do what the onboard computer tells them?