Peer-Reviewed by Reality: What Mars and Texas Tell Us About Engineering
For every 33.9-million-mile distant technological high point like the Mars rover, there’s a counterpart, like the Texas grid, just beneath our feet that undergirds our daily survival.
An engineering triumph and tragedy occurred in jarring contrast recently amid pandemic woes. Cheers and celebration rang out when NASA delivered the $2.4 billion, snap-happy Perseverance rover—a sedan pregnant with a helicopter—for an off-roading adventure on Mars. Meanwhile, an electric and water grid disaster played out in Texas—a chilling betrayal leaving millions of people without basic life support. If the rover seemed an inevitable achievement, the blackout was an easily avoidable calamity. For every 33.9-million-mile distant technological high point, there’s a counterpart just beneath our feet that undergirds our daily survival. It’s between the shiny conquests of innovation and the dull but essential diligence of maintenance, between the glitter and the gutter, that engineering operates.
This “Mars rover and the blackout” problem is the latest incarnation of the “moon and the ghetto” problem posed by the scholar Richard Nelson in the 1970s. Nelson asked: why is civilization adept at moon landing while failing to successfully address poverty and other social ills? Our question is simpler: why are we willing to invest in putting a rover on Mars but not in the mundane responsibility of keeping the nation’s infrastructure in good shape? We are yet to resolve this conundrum. As maintainers nurse the grids, pipes, and sewer lines back to service in Texas, one thing is clear: we cannot afford on-again, off-again seriousness about the care of critical civic infrastructure. Colossal costs are engendered in choosing to mitigate what could have been forestalled. We have seen this, too, with COVID-19, a wicked tangle of many equivalent rovers and blackouts.
To better appreciate the engineering systems that have sustained us through this starter pandemic, imagine if the new coronavirus had appeared in the 1990s at a similar scale and lethality. No broadband connectivity, no remote work, no videoconferencing, no telehealth, no streaming entertainment, no contactless transaction, no online classes, no express deliveries, and no real-time trading. The health and economic consequences may well have been far worse.
Engineering enables new science. We saw this with the brisk conversion of lab notebook formulas to a wholly new class of COVID-19 vaccines, with dramatic scale-up of disease testing and manufacture of protective gear all in months rather than years. And we have learned the hard way that functional logistics are as crucial as vaccine clinical trials and allocation. Good science is peer-reviewed; accountable engineering is reality-refereed. Mission-critical constraints and trade-offs are in the daily diet of engineers. At its core, engineering is a constant struggle between the parts and the wholes to ensure that systems can safely and dependably operate in their environments.
Francis Bacon constructed the foundations of modern science in The New Organon in 1620. He saw insects as nature’s engineers, and this view shaped his practical orientation when introducing the “scientific method.” He identified three approaches to understanding the natural world. One involved ant-like aggregation of data, and another the spider-like spinning of thought from within. The third type was that exhibited by bees—a “middle course” that took the raw materials of flowers and fields and assiduously transformed them into new and wondrous usefulness.
Here, Bacon very likely meant engineers, a word with origins in the Middle Ages, since the word “scientist” came into existence only in 1833. Engineers, like bees, gather ideas from far afield that make our daily conveniences and other astonishing achievements possible. Scientists may have hypothesized about the possibility of microbial life on Mars, but engineers made Perseverance’s search for it possible. It’s that very engineering sensibility that can help prioritize our reliable recovery from the havoc of the earthly microbe, and our preparations for the next contagion. However prudent it is to follow the science, it is also vital to lead with engineering.
As Americans are stung with COVID-19 vaccines and endure the buzz of debate on stimulus policies and when to reopen worksites, industrious engineers will continue to not just pollinate new services, businesses, and jobs, but maintain our collective hive. As attractive as the former is, it’s the latter that sustains us.