When I was a kid, my Father got two books. They were tattered high school library copies from the United States; Somehow those wound up in my Father’s hands. They still had the library cards attached to the first page. The books were about moon landing. Little books, barely 50 pages thick, depicting the Apollo missions, the photographs, were godsend at that time. I pored over them night after night, looking at a odd looking lunar rover and even another weirder looking spacecraft. It looked nothing like the sleek spaceships they show in movies. Over the years, I have got to learn about the Apollo missions, the challenges it faced and overcame, from the landing difficulties of Apollo 11 lunar module, to the tank explosion of Apollo 13.
Even though I marveled at the idea of humanity’s ability to reach the moon, I never really understood why it was so difficult in the first place. I never really understood the reason why there was even a computer involved in the journey. For me, the journey was straightforward. We know where Earth is, we know where Moon is, it’s all a matter of firing a rocket at the right time, and let it fly. And in theory, that’s probably very viable journey. It took me about almost a decade after I started engineering school to internalise the difficulity of such an endeavour, or any engineering for that matter.
An engineer’s body of knowledge is a mangled stage where nature and platonic stratas of scientific knowledge wrestled over the course of human history. The existing body of knowledge serves merely as a guide, but an engineer’s true challenge is to accept nature as is and wedge her creation in the cracks left by nature, one problem at a time. The engineer has to unlearn the neatly arranged “aufbau” of abstractions that she had learned; She had to accept that she was mostly blind, and she had to find her way by touching the walls of reality, feeling it’s texture as she goes along.
Engineering is very difficult because most of the truth that we have come to accept, gets lost in little disturbances in the universe we occupy. These disturbances pile up, making the job a messy endeavour. For example, we can hold a cup of coffee in planes only because our commercial aircrafts are engineered to be incredibly stable while flying at the speed of 700 kilometers per hour. It’s practically impossible to even drive something on the ground without vibrating, let alone flying through the air. That’s where engineers had to toil, day and night, wrestling with mathematics and the nature of reality itself.
The Apollo 11 guidance computer was a reflection of such a struggle; The computer code was released on the internet couple of years ago. I took some time to gaze at it. The compuer existed so that astronauts didn’t have to do a bunch of things, relieving them to just the essentials. Most of those programs are an attempt interpret the world as it presented itself; It’s a tapestry of mathematics, shoved onto bare numbers, from sensor data to gyroscope attitudes. Reading the code feels like it’s a set of taut bungee cords attempting to hold a jungle gym together, all wobbly and scary. But it worked and predictably so!
The brilliant & sweaty struggles of engineers reveal themsleves once one looks deep into the discipline. Almost everywhere, the body of knowledge is bursting at it’s seams, barely held together by error bars and tolerances, assumptions and declarations. Every formula, every program is an attempt to tame something that wasn’t meant to be tamed, from simplest of transistors to complex radio antennas, from rocket engines to autonomous cars, from cellphone chargers to the internet. You would be suprised to think that any of it even works! There’s nothing magical about it, but it does work, and very well so, as our modern life can assert; It’s a testamant to the audacity of engineers; The audacity is in the fact that the engineer chose to live the life of a wrangler, gritting it out against nature day in and day out.