I dream of stardom

Being an engineer (as well as a doctor), I of course think engineers need more fame, public recognition and groupies. Perhaps De lyckliga ingenjörerna was an attempt to describe what engineers do and why, but ultimately I thought it was a failure—the producers just went around and were perplexed at these strange and unintelligible engineers and never really managed to catch the essence of the work. There was one scene, though, which I strongly identified with: One of the aerospace engineers in the film has just realised vital components on the satellite do not conform to spec. Phone discussion with the crew outside the cleanroom, ending with: "Vi får räkna på det här." (I'm not sure what the idomatic Engineering English would be, but something like: "We'll have to work through the numbers.") That symbolises to me all that engineering is about: there is a problem, we'll apply our knowledge and figure out how to solve the problem. It's not very dramatic in action, but the results can of course be impressive.

Back when I was involved in academic research (and therefore staying in hotel rooms with TV sets), I happened to see a few episodes of Airport on BBC. I thought this was docusoap at its best, just showing people doing their work, handling whatever problems they ran into, from big to small. As it happened we had a television production company in the project and I suggested that we could do something similar to Airport on our work in the project, but nobody took my suggestion seriously.

I've still been thinking about how fun it could be to make a film or perhaps a TV series about engineers, made as intentionally low-key as possible. The proposed title is: If you saved the world, it means nothing really happened.

Basic plot premise: A large near-Earth asteroid is estimated to have a 1/10 chance of hitting the Earth within the next hundred years. A department head at ESA decides that something should be done about this. We never find out whether he is genuinely concerned about the threat or if he is mainly attempting to build his own empire, and perhaps it doesn't really matter in the end. He lobbies and writes proposals and eventually manages to gather enough political clout to get the required funds of initially 250 million euros (yes, it's too little, but so it goes) to fund ADE—the Asteroid Diversion Effort. They will develop and attach an ion engine (with lots of propellant) to the asteroid that over a period of many years will push its orbit such that it will stay well clear of Earth. Events play out over a period of fifteen years from the initial forming of the working group.

What happens? People will sit in meetings a lot. Coming from within ESA are many experienced people who have worked with each other for a long time, but now they will have to expand their ranks, bringing in new people with all kinds of backgrounds, materials engineers, software developers and administrators. There will be frictions, misunderstandings, conflicting goals, unspoken assumptions and private agendas. There is also political opposition to such a high-risk and costly project and certainly NASA are better qualified to handle the issue? There are public protests against the environmental impact of the large number of rocket launches necessary to get all the toxic propellant into orbit and indeed there are various fringe cults that await the end of the Earth and predict an impact every time the asteroid comes close to Earth—typically at a distance over five times that of the moon.

The camera is there and occasionally people will acknowledge it and explain what just happened, what kind of interdepartmental rivalry was just successfully exploited, why the choice of purveyor of certain alloys is important (or not important, according to other participants at the same meeting) and how they feel the project is going. We will meet the Czech control systems expert who could solve the persistent feedback shock problems in the fuel system but no-one listens to due to her feeble grasp of English, the young German programmers who impatiently wait for meetings to end so they can go on pub crawls, the brilliant Italian rocket scientist with an idea for a new efficient nozzle design, but which eventually backfires and sets back the project several months while the nozzle is redesigned, and the ultra-geeky Finnish astronomer with the holographic fractal T-shirt (growing steadily fuzzier over time as it is washed out) and the brand new iScarf™—it dies during a January meeting in Kiruna causing a number of acrid comments about stupid Californians who've never seen ice outside their drinks.

This is a film about the working life of these people, so we just get uncommented hints about their private lives—the photograph of the principal investigator's husband on his desk, concert T-shirts popping up on team members, the senior propulsion engineer suddenly going on an extended leave after a project party, a legal expert apparently always talking agitatedly with his family in Poland on the phone, the well-liked French aerodynamicist and flutist dying in a mountainbiking accident and what's the matter with the CAD engineer with the obvious hygiene problems—rumours are rife.

As noted, this is a project that continues for a long time and initial enthusiasm is difficult to keep up, not least among governments and funding authorities, there are problems with financing and running the project, retaining the most experienced workers, handling slipping deadlines and of course, technical problems, always. Some are easily solved, some dog the project through the entire process and constantly have to be worked around. Computer don't just work, there is staff that spend all their days just keeping everything running. They don't worry much about the actual project, but they don't like people installing their own software becasue it means they have to keep hunting for viruses—at one point we find out that ADE is one of the largest reflectors of spam mail in the world after somebody with root access accidentally installed a trojan on her laptop. Computing operations are halted for almost a week while systems staff purge all computers.

A high point is when the probe with the ion engine is launched from Kourou to the asteroid rendezvous. Yet, this is just the end of the beginning. Some people leave, their task apparently finished, others join up. There is a long wait while the probe coasts out to the asteroid. The nagging question is: is the asteroid coherent enough to a) allow the ion engine to attach to it, and b) not to just break up into pieces when the engine starts accelerating the asteroid? The probe will have to shoot spikes into the asteroid to find out its composition, centre of gravity and rotational behaviour.

There are no fancy computer-generated animations of the asteroid in space, just the telemetry data and grainy images on people's computers as they plug the data into their computational models to work out the necessary parameters. There are strange readings—are these due to faulty sensors or unexpected properties of the asteroid? Several sensor designers have to be called in from their current employments (at considerable expense in consultancy fees—the budget is strained to the breaking point) to try to figure out what is going on. In the end some reasonable guesses have to be made and the engine anchored and started. First the asteroid has to be spun down so that it later on can be moved in the right direction. The acceleration is just a few mm/s, so it will take a long time before the effects can be ascertained. A number of adjustments are made but a long while later the asteroid indeed spins around the same axis as the main engine and the big push can start. Irregularities in the acceleration suggest that the asteroid is shedding mass, but none of the presumably lost chunks should be large enough to be a problem.
This is mentioned in one of the regular press releases and as there are no other major news right then (just half a dozen third world wars, famines and epidemics), this item is picked up by the media and grows into a series of sensational accusatory pieces. The project press officer has to work hard for a while. As no disasters attributable to meteorites happen within the next few weeks, the furor eventually dies down.

Years later the asteroid is ascertained to be in an orbit that will not intersect that of the Earth for at least the next hundred thousand years and the project is gradually closed down. There is a bid to keep a skeleton crew to continue reading telemetry data from the probe for scientific reasons, but in the end that is also turned down. So, the still remaining people (of which only very few have been on the project since its inception) go on to other work, or into unemployment as the case may be. Certainly they have all participated in averting a disaster on Earth, but y'know, that was only ever a potential disaster and in the end nothing really happened and anyway there are other potential disasters to worry about.

There it is, potentially a very boring film, but I'd really like to do it.

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